Tower of Song

Monday, April 21, 2014

Finally, A Ham

After three years of butchering hogs with David and the crew, Mary and I finally had the chance to enjoy one of the hams.  In the past, we've lost them due to power fluctuations in Alexandria (surprisingly the power here can be flaky - we have a generator now to stabilize things), when they went through a freeze thaw cycle that left them freezer burned.

David offered some good advice for dealing with this, however, by cutting the ham (a market hog will provide hams in the 25-30 pound range, but the hogs he raises are bigger) into smaller parts and freezing them separately.  This year I had two thirds of the ham cured and took the other piece home - we smoked it BBQ style, as I mentioned in the previous post.

While "Kevin Bacon," as the hog Chris and I shared was known, was the centerpiece of the dinner, we had good company with some neighbors and with one of Mary's college classmates, and her mother.  Mary broke out the china and glassware that we received as wedding presents, and made a very festive spring table.

We used a "Joy of Cooking" process for preparing the ham - which weighed in at 12 pounds -  there are plenty of leftovers.  It was a simple minutes x pounds calculation, and came out perfect.  Both Chris and David helped us out on figuring out how to prepare it (thanks!).

Rounding out the dinner were a couple of family traditions from Mary's side, spring vegetables, a home brewed Dubbel, and a chocolate birthday cake (both Mary's and her classmate's birthdays are coming up).

Our neighbor is an accomplished baker.  She took one of Mary's handwritten family recipes and deciphered it - including some adjustments that had to be made for one entry: "add flour while needing" - and turned out a fabulous "babka."  This was a Polish soda bread with raisins and currents - totally a highlight of the meal.

Now that we know how to deal with the hams and not lose them, I'm looking forward to making a ham dinner an annual tradition.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Alexandria Hops

The Willamettes, vigorous already in the early spring.
Since I learned about the hops neighbor Dan was growing in his backyard near Hawksbill Cabin, I have been inspired to try growing some myself.  I was prepared to try this even before I began brewing beer - I figured somebody would take and use anything I was able to produce.  As it turned out, I ended up with some first year hops bines in the ground at the same time that I was gaining experience as a brewer.

My space for this venture is very constrained in the back yard - we have a postage stamp of a suburban space here in Alexandria, and the whole cleared space back there may be twice the size of the area Dan has under cultivation.  So I decided to keep my plants in pots, easily movable if I figured out a better arrangement for the situation - or in case I failed.

I had aspired to grow Cascade and Willamette hops, since I had seen that those varietals do well in the area.  I would plant two rhizomes in each post to ensure that I would have a survivor of each one.  When I went to order, however, I found that they were sold out of Cascade, and substituted UK Goldings.

The UK Goldings in their spacious new pot.
After discussing this further with Dan, I remembered that while his Willamettes do fine growing as plants, they aren't high yielders for some reason.  His hypothesis is that their location isn't great, since they are in the partial shade of a walnut tree, and because the soil around that tree may not be optimal due to the falling nuts every year.  My plant grew very well, too, but I did not see any cones in the first year (not that I was expecting much of a crop - the plants take a few years to mature).

The Goldings, on the other hand, performed better than I expected.  There were even cones on those plants come harvest time - about two dozen.  Not enough to do anything with, but still, product!

I bought a second pair of Goldings rhizomes, and I transplanted both of the existing plants into new, larger pots last week.  I found that there were roots that had escaped the plants and made their way into the flower beds - not entirely unexpected, because in my readings about hopyards I found that you plan at least a 4x4 hill for each plant.  I was fairly brutal in pruning these roots back for the transplanting, and hope I did not do any lasting damage.

I'll post a series on these hops over the course of the growing season, with a next post to describe the trellis system I am trying out for the Goldings this year.  That's all for now though!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Cabin Lore: The Neighbors' Tree House

The front of the tree house, from the Lawyers' yard.
Beaver Run is visible in the background.
Among the earliest buyers and builders in the Hawksbill Pines neighborhood were the Lawyers - that was their actual last name, and the cross street at the top of the hill was named after them.  They settled in and built a weekend home up there with excellent party amenities, including walk in cold storage out in the barn - the same one that Dan now brews out of.

They lived in the house at the end of the block for a good long time.  There is still evidence of wonderful summer parties there in the house - the current owners will take you for a walk down in the basement where many a guest signed in.  Times were good in the summer in the Pines!

Some time after the couple retired to the neighborhood, their first house became too difficult to live in.  They owned the lots next door, so they built an easy 60's era ranch over there.  It's actually a two-story home built into the hillside, so the basement opens to the yard in the back, while the main entry is at ground level in the front.

The view of the tree house from Hawksbill Cabin,
across the hollow.
Eventually Mrs. Lawyer was confined to a wheel chair.  They weren't going to let that stop them from enjoying the great outdoors, however, so they built a grand tree house out in the woods.  It's at least a 30 foot walk out the deck to get to it, and the house is easily 30 to 40 feet above ground.

I can imagine summer nights out there with friends, enjoying a cookout dinner and playing cards into the night.  In the spring, the serenade of the peeper frogs would be absolutely amazing, and in the summer, the fireflies would be such a treat.  Combine that with an unobstructed view of Big Meadow Mountain in Shenandoah National Park and you wouldn't have much to complain about.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Nuthatch Rescue

After we returned from our hike in SNP on Sunday afternoon, I was sitting in the Hawksbill Cabin living room and heard a loud bang.  I was a familiar sound, I'd heard it once or twice before - a little nuthatch had collided with the windows out front.  I saw the little bird laid out on the brick terrace, and just as quickly as I had looked up, I saw Mom Cat run over to check it out.

I rushed outside to see if there was anything we could do for the bird - that meant the first priority was to keep him safe from Mom Cat and the other barn cats.  They probably hunt the little song birds, and we suspect that they have taken at least one other unfortunate little bird that hit one of the windows.

A few years ago a finch struck the rear window at the Alexandria house.  That time, Mary made a call to the animal shelter to see if they would come and get the bird, of if they could offer advice.  We were told that they go into shock from the collision - that there was a good chance of recovery, as long as they are kept safe from predators until they recover - which can be anywhere from a half hour to a couple of hours.

So with the little nuthatch, I figured I would get him up off of the brick terrace, and keep him away from the barn cats and the hawks that patrol the neighborhood.  I scooped him up into one of the chairs and sat next to him to keep watch.

When he rolled over onto his back, I thought to myself, "This isn't good."  I figured I would soon be dropping him into a pile of leaves back in the wood lot.  But after about 10 minutes, he popped over onto his feet, as shown in the photo.  He was clearly still shaking things off, but the prognosis was looking better.

After another 10 minutes or so, I saw him moving his head around, checking me out.  I thought I might move the chair over to the side of the terrace, so he could see the trees and other cover - and fly away to them as soon as he was ready.  As soon as I did that, he was off, flying up and over the house.

Later, while we were packing for the drive home, I went around back to see if I could spot him.  There were two nuthatches back there - I assume it was him and his mate.  It reminded me that we found a little nuthatch nest last year in the pool cabana, with five eggs in it - maybe this is one of that brood.

In any case, my karma was assured for the week.  I'm looking for my next good deed.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Jones Run Falls - More Photos

In the post yesterday, I mentioned I had a couple of photos and such, taken with my new iPhone 5s, that I wanted to share.  Let me start off with a photo of Tessie and me, which Mary took of us down at the falls. Good times! 

Next, here's ten second video of Jones Run Falls.  At 42 feet, this is not the tallest in the park, but still it's pretty grand. This was my fourth hike down to it - I think it has become my favorite in the park.

Here is the first of a couple of panoramic shots I took, using that feature on the iPhone.  The first one is of one of the two falls you reach before you arrive at the main falls - there's a cave and some pretty interesting rock formations in this part of the gorge. Even though the waterfall here hugs that large boulder, there is plenty to take in at this spot.

The final shot here is a panoramic view of the main falls.  It shows how the falls plunges over a rock ledge through this part of the gorge, and the abstraction from the pano feature makes for an interesting perspective.