Homesteader’s wildcrafted sugar

This spring we’ve seen what may be one of the best maple syrup seasons in years. The forecast for this season was that it would be a short one, considering how early it started and how little snow was on the ground. However, the weather has been rather perfect for the last couple months, and we’ve been getting sap runs virtually every week since we tapped back in February. We saw our peak run only last week. This is in stark contrast to last year, when the farm probably had the worst season ever.

Path to sugarbushPath to sugarbush

Shown above is the trail we walk to get to the mature sugarbush we have on site. It’s actually been a mostly snow-free season here (the opposite of last year, when we had four or more feet of snow in most places); I took the above shots after one of the few snowfalls we had.

We collect sap in reused 4-litre water jugs as a means of both saving money and keeping the plastic out of landfills and the downcycling industry for a little while longer. They work very well for sap. They obviously don’t have the same longevity as galvanized sap buckets – over time little holes form as a result of handling and UV degradation – but so long as we can get them for free (which, mostly, we do), it makes a lot of sense.

Recycled jugs for collecting sapTwo-tap tree

Many of our taps are the traditional metal taps, which we’ve acquired over the years from various sources. However, when we run short, we have simple homemade taps that Deryk carves out of branches of the right diameter – just sticks with a hole in the middle for the sap to run through. They seem to work just as well as the metal taps. On collection days, we take a walk through the sugarbush, emptying the sap from the jugs into 4- and 5-gallon buckets.

Homemade sap tapEmptying jugs into buckets

Now, until we build an evaporator (maybe based on a rocket stove), the only means we have for boiling down sap is on our wood-fired cookstoves. There are three active households on the property with wood stoves that are running anyway, for heat and daily cooking. So each time we collect sap we try to cram it all into pots on our respective stoves.

Fresh sap heating on stove

The sap boiling does make for an extra-warm, extra-humid environment indoors. Thankfully, we have windows we can open and layers we can strip off, as needed.

Boiling sap ready for testing

After 2-4 days of simmering and boiling (depending on the amount of sap collected), we end up with something that’s dark and very sweet – increasingly akin to syrup. The volume of syrup often seems shockingly less than you expect… but such is the nature of maple syrup! A sap-to-syrup ratio of 40:1 is typical. The best way to test the syrup’s readiness is with a candy thermometer – when the liquid reaches 104ºC, it’s syrup.

Unfortunately, all the candy thermometers on the property have bit the dust, so there’s another cool way to test: the apron test. To test, dip a spoon or spatula into the boiling sap, then pull it out and watch how the liquid drips. If it drips as individual drops, the sap isn’t boiled down enough yet:

Drip test showing single drops - not readyDrip test still showing single drops

When the syrup aprons off the spoon – that is, drips off in a sheet – that’s when it’s ready to be bottled:

Syrup runs off spatula in a sheet - ready!Drip test confirmed - syrup is ready!

If you boil past the syrup stage, the syrup gets too thick and may crystallize in the jar. But if you don’t boil it enough, it will not preserve properly (it could ferment).

Before bottling, and while the syrup is still very hot, we pass the syrup through a sieve made out of layered scraps of wool sweaters to clarify it and reduce the amount of sediment that collects. Felted wool would be even better. Commercial filters are made either out of wool or synthetic materials, but for the home syrupmaker, that’s not necessary; old wool sweaters work like a charm.

Filtering syrup through old wool sweater

Then I bottle the syrup in bottles that have been sitting in hot or boiling water. It’s not really necessary to sterilize your bottles. If you don’t, a thin layer of harmless mould may form on the top surface of the syrup over the course of its storage, but you can just skim that off. It’s good to have your bottles hot, however, to prevent breakage due to the temperature difference when they are filled with hot syrup.

Old liquor bottles work great for maple syrup. Deryk’s favourite choice is Kraken Rum bottles since they have cute little handles. I just used an old scotch bottle. Ta-da!

Finished syrup

Building our timber-frame barn

As some of you may already know, we’ve been pretty busy the last couple months building a proper barn for the community – a central place to keep our goats, their feed, their hay, and their water year-round. (And maybe, someday, a place to keep other animals.) This will be a major improvement, because currently the goats are crowded in one small barn, their feed is stored outside, their hay is split between another temporary shed and a giant tarped pile in the driveway, and their water… well, often it’s hauled by the bucketful from home. In the middle of winter with 8-foot snowbanks, that’s not a particularly fun chore. And with potentially four mama goats kidding next March, the little old barn they’re currently in now just won’t cut it!

So we’ve been pushing hard to get the new barn built and ready to accept its residents before this coming winter’s heavy snow. And it’s coming together nicely, even if we’re a little behind schedule. The weather has been pretty gracious.

I figured you might be interested how we’re building this thing. Well, it’s getting built more or less the same way all the structures on this property have been built – slipform stone masonry for its foundation, berm wall, and buttresses, and timber-frame construction for the rest. Conceptually it’s really quite simple. In practice, it can be a little finicky sometimes, but maybe that’s just how construction is in general. We just let Deryk figure out all the hard parts, and he tells us what to do. Seems to work out pretty well.

We picked a site for the barn that was fairly central relative to current and proposed pastureland, and mostly uphill from the gardens since much of what comes out of the barn (i.e., manure) will need to be wheelbarrowed to the gardens eventually. The site also needed to have a sharp downhill slope in it, so that we could drive into the rear of the hayloft from the the lane while still being able to walk the goats directly out to pasture from the lower level.

The site we chose is right next to what we call the Hayfield, and close to the pond. The pond could serve as an extra/emergency water source for the animals, too. But the barn would have a cistern built into in the poured concrete foundation, supplied by rainwater – the same as it is in all the other houses on the property.

The site started out as forest, and so we had to do some cutting and then excavating before it was ready to build anything on. Then we built simple forms for the footings, filled them with concrete, and stuck our first lengths of rebar into them. Footings are the concrete pads you pour to create a level surface capable of supporting the loads you expect them to bear. Deryk has done this a million times before, so he knows how to figure out how big they need to be.

Site before excavation

Footing formsFootings after being poured

Then we set in place forms on top of the footings for the first and every subsequent level of slipform masonry. I explained how all this works in my last post where I talked about the wood shed extension on our house. We’ve gotten quite good at it as a team, I daresay. An really has a knack for making tight fits. I’ll say no more about that.

First level of slipformsFilling slipform walls as a team

TeamworkAlmost done slipforming

And then after all the forms were off, the walls looked like this!

The finished masonry walls

I didn’t mention how we built the cistern, mostly because I wasn’t there for that part and missed taking any pictures of the process, but I did see how we did the root cellar, which is similar. The root cellar was a bit of an afterthought in the design of the barn: We had a bunch of space to fill in the floor, but instead of filling it with dirt, we decided to leave it hollow so that we could store big bags of root veggies to feed the animals over the winter. We lined the base of it with gravel, then built concrete walls around the cavity using slipforms, and then created a structure out of two-by-fours and plywood to support a concrete floor above it. Before we poured the floor we reinforced the surface with a grid pattern of rebar, which is needed to support the weight of people and animals walking all over it.

Getting the root cellar floor ready for pouring

The next step was to parge and tar the outside of the berm and stem walls to protect the concrete from the threat of water seepage. If water gets into tiny cracks in the concrete and freezes, it creates bigger cracks in the concrete and over time threatens its structural integrity; tarring protects against this. When that was done we had the backhoe guy come back and move tons of gravel, soil and sand back against the berm and stem walls, and do some other landscaping while he was at it.

Tarring the berm wallStem wall tarred

Backhoe backfillingBerm wall backfilled

Now it was time to put up the timbers! Deryk and Rodney got the first level of sills and posts up pretty quickly, and the next day we got most of the ground floor posts and beams up. Finished that and started laying out the loft decking afterwards. This stuff can happen pretty fast (if the weather cooperates); it’s like putting together a 3D jigsaw puzzle. When everything’s in place and level and square, all the timber joints get pegged together tight with oak pegs that Deryk has carved beforehand.

Stem wall backfilledRoughing out the loft deck

While Deryk was busy carving the rafters and collars (lots of them), we finished cutting and nailing down the loft decking. We also got the sheathing on front of the barn done. And today with the rafters all ready to go, as a team we put up the trusses. As I mentioned earlier, timber-frame work can be a little finicky; timbers can warp a little as they dry, causing bowing and twists that can make it quite difficult to get them to fit together just right. We just let Deryk make the necessary tweaks to tenons or shoulders or whatever until he’s satisfied. The trusses all get pegged before they are raised into place.

Tweaking collarPegging rafter to collar

Raising a trussGo team

And finally, the barn is taking shape!

Trusses in placeBraced trusses

Braced trussesTime for a break

Next tasks include framing up the dormer, attaching hurricane braces and roof strapping, and by next week putting on the steel roof! Exciting, especially for those of us who aren’t afraid of heights. We’ll be posting more barn updates on our Facebook page.

Building a wood shed using slipform stone masonry

Back in November, Laire and I discovered that we would eventually move into Thor’s Den, a beautiful, uninhabited dwelling residing at the Keep that needed a little love and a little work to finish its construction.

Laire, my in-house architect, decided we needed to add a separate bedroom, as the home only came with a sleeping space in the loft. He also thought that the wood shed, which was on the south end of the house, should instead be on the opposite end, adjacent the driveway, so that you could drive a truckful of firewood right up to it. So we would convert the existing wood shed to a bedroom, and add a new wood shed to the north end. We consulted with Deryk, and he was game. Which was great, because we had no friggin’ clue how we’d do any of it without him.

Converting the old wood shed to a bedroom wasn’t all that hard. Before we got there, the shed had been used to house a couple goats for a while. Our billygoat liked to sharpen his horns on the concrete wall, and the walls and floor were probably well infused with his scent. So we did a little cleaning first. We like to get things “broom-clean” around here. Then we added an insulated floor and insulation on the walls and ceiling, and we shut the room in with windows and a door. Trim went on, then cedar shingles, and we’re now working on the drywall. Now, all of this took a helluva lot longer to do than it did for me to type those few sentences. But from the outside, you can see we’ve made some progress!

Thor's Den with goat in wood shedWood shed turning into bedroom

Laire shingling bedroom Bedroom close to done

Thor’s Den is a very solid structure whose walls are mostly stone and reinforced concrete, built using a technique called slipform stone masonry. More than just charming in appearance, these walls have enough strength to support the weight of the hill that is bermed against the back of the home, which greatly helps to moderate indoor temperatures year-round.

But to add a new wood shed, we’d have to extend this concrete wall, since this extension would still need to support that hillside in behind it. So we got a pal to dig the dirt all out for us, right down to ledge. That was step 1. Easy peasy.

Next, we had to pour the footing. That required building some pretty clever forms, because around here, ledge is rarely just flat. It’s all kinds of crazy ancient mountain shapes. So piece by piece, we had to build some pretty intricate forms out of various pieces of wood to contain the concrete that would become the footing. I let Deryk figure out the math mostly. He just got me to hold things, hammer things, or cut things, which I did gladly. In the end, we had concrete that became one with the ledge. I don’t think a strong wind is going to blow this wall down easily.

Footing forms along uneven ledge

Pouring the footing Concrete becoming one with ledge!

Then we attached slipforms to the footing forms to start filling up with rock and more concrete. Slipforms are just frames made from 2x4s with plywood on one side. You can make them whatever sizes you need and reuse them. It’s important to brace them to make sure they stay square and level, and also that they don’t burst open from the weight of the concrete and rock they’re meant to contain.

When you’ve done a couple levels of forms, you can remove the forms on the lower level and reuse them for the next level up. Sometimes they’re a little tricky to take off, especially when you have PVC drainpipes passing tightly through them. But as you can see below, Laire was all smiles.

Our buddy Wayne got involved with this project, mixing all the concrete for us whenever we needed it and helping us assemble and disassemble forms. He’s been a huge help.

Pouring the foundation using slipforms

Wayne and Deryk preparing the last level of forms Removing the first forms

And there’s the finished wall!

The finished wall after removing forms

Now I’ve neglected to mention all kinds of critical details of how this wall got built, like how the slipforms were properly braced and wired together, how we criss-crossed the entire structure with reinforcing rebar at particular intervals, how we fit the stones around the rebar and made sure there was still enough concrete in between opposing stones so that our wall didn’t fall apart, how we had to get the concrete a particular thickness or runniness depending on what stage we were at, how we even got some of those giant rocks lifted into place in the first place, and how I repeatedly held up the entire process because I’m too finicky and I can’t help getting lost in the details.

Oh, and obviously, that we’re not actually done building the wood shed. We’ve only just done the wall. The floor is next. And then the timber frame. Then the roof. There’s lots of steps in building things. Lots.

But I don’t have time to share any more details right now because it’s harvest day tomorrow, and we also have giant rubbermaids of blueberries to preserve. Man, I’m such a slacker!

Savouring summer abundance with a Chard, Choy, Cheese & Egg Casserole

It’s a bit crazy how fast things are growing at this time of year. It feels like little more than a week ago when I was transplanting the bok choy seedlings into the greenhouse, and already they’ve multiplied a hundred times in size. The livestock is as productive as ever, too, with a steady flow goat’s milk and our chickens and muscovy ducks laying all but too regularly. What’s a poor homesteader to do?? Why, bake a Chard, Choy, Cheese & Egg Casserole, of course!

This hearty dish is a delicious way to use up an abundance of greens, eggs, and cheese, and it’s as easy as pie.

  • 6 duck eggs (or 8 chicken eggs)
  • 1¼ cups whole-grain flour
  • 2-3 cups cottage cheese, ricotta, chèvre, or other soft curd cheese, crumbled
  • 1 cup feta cheese, crumbled
  • 2-3 cups any hard cheese, shredded (e.g., cheddar, mozzarella, Swiss)
  • ½ bunch rainbow chard, chopped
  • ½ head bok choy, chopped
  • handful of toasted sunflower seeds (optional)
  1. Preheat your oven to 350ºF and grease a large casserole.
  2. In a large bowl, beat together the eggs and flour.
  3. Stir in all cheeses, and mix in chopped chard and bok choy.
  4. Mush up the mixture with a wooden spoon, or get right in there with your hands. You want it mushy but not runny.
  5. Pour mixture into greased casserole. If desired, sprinkle the top with toasted sunflower seeds.
  6. Bake at 350ºF for 45-55 minutes.

Enjoy right out of the oven. Tastes just as good as leftovers, too!

Now, the best part is, if you come to Farm-Gate Friday today between 4 and 6pm, you can pick up most of what you need for this recipe right here fresh from the farm. Or if you can’t make it today, come to market in Annapolis Royal tomorrow morning and pick up what you need there. See you soon!

The cheeses made at Snow Lake Keep

‘Tis the season of abundance. With week after week of warm summer weather comes the prolific growth of every vegetable we have in the ground. As if the gardens aren’t enough to keep up with, add livestock to the mix – livestock with udders – and you find yourself spending every spare moment just keeping all this goodness from spoiling! Time to get creative. What better way to preserve fresh goat’s milk than to turn it into delicious cheeses?

Soft curd

Deryk and Rodney have had practice making cheese from goat’s milk for years now. They start by making a simple Soft Curd – an acid-coagulated cheese that’s very mild in flavour. It’s great on bread, added to salads, or crumbled on top of a dish of hot pasta. It also makes for a good substitute for a fresh mozzarella.

Scarborough Fair

Deryk takes a lump of this fresh curd and crumbles it into chopped parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme – a classic herb combination described in the lyrics of a famous folk song. He calls his delicious herbed curd, appropriately, Scarborough Fair. This, too, is fantastic on a slice of fresh baguette.

Feta

Now how about an aged cheese for long-term storage? These two are fresh cheeses and probably won’t keep for more than a couple weeks in the fridge. Well, get this: All you have to do is take a lump of the soft curd, drop it into some brine, and allow it to sit for a few weeks—and presto! You’ve got a wonderful Feta that will keep for months on end, becoming harder and sharper the longer it ages. These boys are more than just pretty to look at!

Now, what about that cheese that most of us think of when we hear the words “goat’s cheese?” Chèvre, of course: that soft, spreadable cheese that’s got a wonderful goaty flavour.

Herbed chèvre

Well, yours truly has taken a crack at a Herbed Chèvre this summer, and I’ve received some pretty good feedback already. The seasonal herbs this week were garlic scapes, parsley, basil, thyme, and marjoram. I’m pretty excited about this chèvre and expect to be making it on a regular basis!

Meanwhile, I’m still currently trying to master goat’s milk brie, and a genuine fresh goat’s milk mozzarella. If I ever get those right, you’ll be the first to know!