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Farewell Mr. Pickles, Loopy, and the sheep.

January 7, 2011

It’s been a while  now since the last update, but I thought I should keep this in some kind of order, and the only order that makes sense (if sense can be made of something so damned nonsensical) is chronological, so here we go with the next installment of The Great, nay, The Fantastic Adventures of Sandy Belle. In this episode we join our heroine as she prepares to embark on yet another journey; a journey from which she will never look back, possibly never recover, and hopefully, always view as a positive, slightly mad, almost insane, but nonetheless positive, step in her development as a contributing and progressive member of society.

On this surprisingly cold, but calm, clear, Sunday in November, Sandy Belle is to make her way from her summer lodgings in the open and windswept grasslands at the toe of the Sierra Nevada mountains, to her permanent home in Brooks, California, a community of 92 (going on 94)  nestled between two scrubby-looking ridges of the Pacific Coast Range. The Blue Ridge and the Rumsey Hills are separated only by the narrow floodplain of Cache Creek and the fertile and productive farmlands it has helped create. It is due to the productivity of that farmland, the agricultural community it supports, and the simple beauty of the place, that we find ourselves dragging poor Sandy Belle the hundred-and-something miles down Interstate 5 from Chico. I know she liked it out there in the flatlands, surrounded by nothing but open grasslands and Butte County’s sacred Vernal Pools, but the trip down the Highway to Brooks and the Capay Valley, we told her, would be worth the stress of having to say farewell to the meadowlarks, to Mr. Pickles, Loopy, and the sheep; soon she is to have sheep of her own.

So, on the morning of the move we made our way in convoy (what other way is there to travel) out to the Wookey’s where Sandy Belle was waiting. Mr. Wookey, thankfully, had previously moved Sandy Belle from her shelter behind his workshop out to beside the road with one of his umpteen tractors to prevent any logistical shortcomings brought on by the mud and the likelihood of even more mud. Before making our way (in convoy) to the Wookey’s, we had to first go (in convoy) and pick up the huge truck that was given the unlikely and somewhat arduous task of pulling Sandy Belle down to Brooks. Now, I’m not saying that Sandy is in any way too big for her frame, overweight, or the classic, “big boned”, or that a normal-sized Amurrican truck wouldn’t be strong enough to pull her, in fact  it’s quite the opposite, she’s rather light for her size, it’s just that she doesn’t have any brakes and a 4000 pound trailer with no brakes takes quite a bit of stopping, hence the need for Hector (shoot, now I’ve gone and given him a name too). After convincing the guy at the equipment rental place that we knew exactly what we were doing and that his truck was in the safest of hands, he let us drive it off into the distance with only a hint of regret visible on his usually cheery face. The fact that his dad (who happens to also be called Guy) once hugged me in public when I had absolutely no idea who he was meant nothing, he was still as confused and dazed looking as I had been – it took me about three days to get over the shock of that encounter and to figure out that I actually knew the bloke and that his saying “You should come by and see me some time” wasn’t as wierd as it had first appeared – and I’m sure it took him just as long to get over the fact that his truck was soon to be used to pull a 32 year-old 4000 lb Airstream trailer with no brakes and dodgy tires, by a hobbit, it’s parents, and a strangely amused  Scotsman.

Having picked up the truck and made it (still in convoy) out to the Wookey’s, we made a final round of the place, picking up all our left over bits of wood, tools, and spare freezers and hitched Sandy to Hector (or visa versa). We stopped in on Mrs. Wookey briefly who was busying herself with the newborn lambs – all 96 of them (aawwww) – and then headed out (ic) on the journey.

And that, surprisingly, was that; no great adventure, no tales of hours spent by the side of the road caressing Sandy Belle’s fractured underside in the vain hope that her wheels would once again join the rest of her body, no encounters with toothless wierdos and their overly-friendly, and equally toothless, grandmothers, nothing, just an everyday trip down the road, by everyday folks, towing an everyday trailer. Bo-ring! It was one of those adventures that had the potential for any number of disasters. There were so many variables that could have sent the whole thing on it’s arse that I was literally weighing up the odds of what would actually happen; would it be a flat tire? a more dire technical emergency? would the whole rig go shooting through a red light taking out dogs, grannies, and vertically challenged basketball players? If you had offered me odds on Sandy Belle making it to her new home, tucked-in happily amongst the almonds without so much as a scratch, I probably would have laughed and not taken the bet , silly me. It appears that miracles can happen.

So there she sits, awaiting her next challenge – to get from one spot to the other, on the same farm, in the same orchard; no tractors, no convoy, no Mr.Wookey and his endless enthusiasm and mechanical know-how, just us, Skye, 55 acres, and 55 times as much opportunity for getting stuck in the mud, and our brand new, 1985 Chevy Custom Delux pickup. The next adventure? I think so.


9th Street Brewery

August 8, 2010

I’ve been drinking beer for several years now (the exact number escapes me), and brewing it for only three or four of those. So to start swaying the balance of wasted time over to the brewing side of this enjoyable hobby I thought I might put on another batch and share the process on this here blog-a-billy.

We’ve only got a week or so before we move out of our current residence and into the queen of all land vessels, Sandy Belle. Although our new place will have ample space for brewing and other such creative activities the ability to put the fermenters in a location that is cool enough during the hot Californian summer will be lost with our move away from Lex’s parents and their basement with its year-round 70 degree temperature. The need to put a brew on was heightened when my brother and nephew announced their imminent visit in October. So, after realizing that a brew was necessary, and in quick-smart fashion, I began considering what style of beer to make. It came to me in a flash, much like a bus coming round the corner just after you’ve lit a cigarette.

October = Octoberfest = Oktoberfest. I would make an Oktoberfest. But not a normal Oktoberfest. Of course not, why make something normal, something that’s similar to all the other stuff available in the stores when you have the unlimited possibilities afforded by being the recipe creator, brewer, consumer, and critic all rolled into one. There is also the little matter of Oktoberfest being officially a lager and the yeast that help to make lagers lagers only work in low temperatures of about 50 degrees Fahrenheit. (Some of you may not realize, but there are highly regulated guidelines for almost every style of beer imaginable. The BJCP Style guidelines are used by beer judges to help them assess how good a particular beer is. Personally if it makes me go “mmmmm” then it’s good, if it makes me go “emmm?” not so good, and if it makes me go “eeuch!”, well that kind of speaks for itself.) Although the basement at 666 is cool, it’s not cool enough for fermenting lagers. After consulting some of my favorite sources I decided to use a German Ale yeast strain which would help give the beer the dry, crispness of a lager without actually being a lager. It would also have to work because it’s German, right?

I also figured that some smokiness was required to give it a little character and make it work really well with some nice smoked sausage or some barbecued pork. So, with that in mind I share with you the making of “Hogtoberfest”, the last beer to be made (by me at least) at the 9th Street Brewery and residence.

This is the view of the entire set-up. It’s pretty crude but hey, it works.

The brewer’s chair. Another necessary piece of equipment, as will be demonstrated as we get further into the procedure. Also at this stage, roughly 9 gallons of water are brought up to temperature using the propane burner.

The items on the tray include a thermometer, funnel, plastic spoon lacking any personality whatsoever, 1 gallon jug, and a hydrometer, all sterilised and ready to go. Unlike my style of cooking where I tend to just grab random ingredients from the fridge and throw them together in whatever combination I feel like, brewing requires the strict adherence to recipes. In order to achieve the desired outcomes in the character of the beer (things like bitterness, malt, alcohol content and such) it is necessary to know exactly when to add each ingredient and for how long each should be boiled, bashed, steeped, or mashed.

While I wait for the water to come up to temperature it’s also imperative to relax and sample some of my previous creations. That particular concoction is known as Lexie Littleton’s Blackberry Honey Porter, a dark and heavy porter made with fresh blackberries added to the fermenter and using honey from our friends’ orchard-pollinating bees.

Once the water reaches the desired temperature, this one was about 170 degrees Farenheit, the pre-crushed grains are mixed in and held at a constant temperature by the insulation of the mash-tun cooler for an hour, in the process known as mashing.

Another chance to sample some homebrew. This is Rankin’s Fancy, a British-style Pale Ale loosely based on a clone of one of my favourites, Deuchars IPA.

After the mash, the sweet wert is drained into the brew kettle and the grains are rinsed with more hot water to extract as much fermentable sugars, colours, and flavours as possible in the process known as sparging.

Putting the brew kettle on the flame and bringing the wert up to a boil sometimes takes a while……

… it’s usually another opportunity to get some real work done.

Inside the brew kettle, with the wert up to a nice rolling boil, it’s time to add the first of the hops.

Hops come in either whole flower form (as here) or in pellets. After years of fighting with the sludge leftover after brewing with pellets, I decided to use whole hops and only use pellets when absolutely necessary. In this instance the original recipe called for two types of hops that weren’t currently available at the homebrew shop so I opted to stick with whole hops and substitute for ones that had similar characteristics to the originals. When substituting hops, I’ve got to look at the alpha acids (the percentage on the packages) to ensure the beer is going to be as bitter as it would have been had I been able to use the original hops, and also the aroma and flavour of each hop to best match the original.

The hops are added at the start of a 60 minute boil and again at various intervals throughout. The early additions impart the bitterness to beer and the later ones are added for their flavouring and aromas. In Hogtoberfest I used two German styles of hops, Northern Brewer for bittering and a Spalt for aroma and flavouring.

Although keeping an eye on the boil and the timings of the hop additions, it’s important to keep on top of the chair duties and tasting.

….and meanwhile, on the stairwell…..

After the wert is boiled for an hour and all the hop additions are complete the wert is chilled as quickly as possible to prevent the development of any unwanted bacteria that may be lurking in the alleyway. The wert chiller is a coil of copper piping placed inside the kettle which cold water is piped through, thus chilling the wert.

When the wert is chilled down to about 70 degrees, it is then transferred to the fermenter with a pre-prepared packet of liquid yeast. I let it sit overnight in the breezeway of 9th Street before transferring to the cellar over at the in-laws. It will sit there for 7 days before being transferred over to a secondary fermenter for another week. At this stage it will be ready to drink except for the carbonation which will be accomplished by kegging the beer and putting it on CO2 in the kegerator. Another week or so and it will be ready, however, almost all beers really do benefit from a bit of aging, so by the time October comes around Hogtoberfest should be nicely carbonated and all the flavours will have mellowed and we’ll have a nice, slightly smoky, balanced beer.

I’ll report back after the tasting. If you don’t hear about it again, just assume that something dreadful happened like one of those wee beasties I previously mentioned got in there and destroyed about five hours of hard work and rendered the pointlessness of this posting even more pointless.

The Amazing Adventures of Sandy Belle: pt1

July 14, 2010

During her 32-year journey from Florida to California, Sandy Belle has seen some rough times and some fun times. As we have been getting to know her over the last month she’s told us quite a bit about her travels and life before The Robertson’s. In her early years she lived with the wind in her TV antenna and sand between her hub caps on the Florida coast. She spent some time with a photogenic couple and their two little boys, one of whom was apparently born within her aluminium shell. Together they spent their days being photographed in either their underwear or their Sunday best, all the while reading the romance novels of the great Georgina Gentry. Later, having left Florida and the comfort of her childhood behind, she upped stabilizers to the bluegrass state of Kentucky.  Sandy Belle was soon picked up by a local horse trainer and travelled the length and breadth of ” Ol’ Huckity” with his merry band of jockeys, gamblers, and tobacco-spittin’ shoe polish salesmen. At this time in her life, Sandy Belle became quite the connoisseur of eighties fashion, leaving the frills and charm of the seventies behind her and taking on a bolder, more outgoing appearance (one must suppose) to  blend in with the garishness, mullets, and plastic-lined cabinetry of the times. She especially liked to be seen around the racetracks wearing nothing but her brown and pink striped nylon sofa-bed cover and pink flamingo curtains.

Her high-rolling lifestyle and exclusive travels in the South were to come to an end when her owner brought her up to California. Here she found herself a large oak tree where she could while away the days in the shade watching the goats and emus romp around in the golden fields nearby. The same oak tree that provided her with shelter from sun and rain also took on the persona of a womping willow and left poor Belle with some nasty scratches and dents and a hull full of bloody acorns. During her days under the oak tree, Sandy Belle also fell in with a band of migrant farmworkers. These hard-working fellas didn’t care much for Belle’s glamorous past in the racetracks, beach-side campgrounds, and Wal-Mart car parks of the American South, and simply trod oil, cow poo, and every other  sort of  mucky substance all over her plush interior. It was in this state, covered in the grime and dirt of a hundred dirty boots, filled with the sand of a thousand Florida beaches and the acorns of one gigantic oak tree that Sandy Belle came into our possession.

This collection of stories, photies, and otherwise interesting blog entries, will depict our efforts to restore Sandy Belle back to her former glory, and transform her into her new, 21st century, Californian Airstream persona.

enter at your own risk

the galley cabinets and through to cabin


front room and door

current view from front door

Front end

Sandy Belle inside out

As of right now, all major interior fixings are outside. We took out the bed and the sofa-bed to gain access to the floor and repair some water damaged flooring and fix the problems that became apparent after the floor was removed – talk about digging yourself a hole. It appears that most structural issues are fairly minor (or at least can be made to appear so with a little paint and glue!). We are trying to spend our time getting her to a state that is both aesthetically livable and safe, but will, over time, polish her nails and get her ship-shape and bristol fashion.

Stay tooned.


May 28, 2010

Well, it’s been a while so I suppose I should scribble something down on this here scribblenet.

We’re having somewhat of an odd start to the summer. It’s been cloudy and rainy for the last week, with temps hardly getting out of the 60’s. I’m actually quite enjoying the fact that the summer heat is taking it’s time in getting here as I can still go outside and get the mail without breaking into a spontaneous sweat. I am however slightly concerned that when it does come its going to be really angry and twice as mean to my pastey-white Scottishness, just because spring took a bit more time in leaving!

Tomorrow may be the start of a new period of our lives. Although, in reality, every day could be considered as such. We are going to go and look at an Airstream trailer (see link) as a possible sleeping situation for us for the next…. well until we get tired of living in a tin can. We are moving to Davis, CA in a couple of months and are planning on moving onto a piece of land that will allow us to raise some sheep and chickens, and whatever else we happen to feel like. We have a couple of options right now, one of them being a little house on an Alpaca ranch, the owners of which are happy for us to use some of the  space to start our business. We are also looking at a couple of leasing options in and around the Davis area. Some of which have housing attached and others do not, hence the Airstream.

We have made the decision that we need to start moving in the direction we want to be going in as far as farming goes or else we could find ourselves in perpetual toe-dip territory. It’s funny how we tackle different aspects of our life. I tend to jump head first into whatever I’m doing in life and Lex is more cautious and takes more time to ponder the possibilities. On the other hand, when faced with a large body of cold water, Lex is the one who goes in without even a cursory toe-dip, and I shiver on the bank occasionally going in to my ankles, until I either pluck up the courage to jump in or give up and go back to the beer. In regards to our future and our dreams of farming, we are both hovering on the edge and testing the water. I think that over the coming months and years  we will be wading in at a rate that allows us to get used to each depth and temperature before completely ducking our heads in gallons of sheep and chicken poo.

In other news; the pause in brewing brought on by the lack a suitable summer fermenting cellar has ended as I have managed to procure a corner of my Mother-in-Law’s basement which, as my thermometer tells me, stays at an amicable 67 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the entire sweaty debacle.  Last week my brother-in-law/brewing partner received his three-tiered, gravity-fed, all-grain, rolls-royce, ding-dong, hob-nob, brand spanking new brewing system. It’s cool. Made for just under $500 by the guy at the home-brew store it involves two stainless steel 6.5 gallon kettles, a 10 gallon plastic mash/Lauter tun, 2 propane burners and enough welded steel to make even Tim “the Tool Man” Taylor squeal like a girl. I’m highly envious. We did give it a test run last weekend and by golly did we make some beer. We made what we are calling a “Leftover Amber” which is an American Amber style beer but using the same ridiculous hop schedule that we used for our “Leftover IPA”. That brew came about when we realised that over the past year or so we had accumulated a large amount of various kinds of hops left over from all the brews that require wierd or uneven amounts. So, instead of integrating them slowly into our brews we thought we’d just blow the entire lot and sculpt a beer with enough hops to end the hop shortage in the entire state. We based it loosely on a Double IPA recipe in Sam Calagione’s (Dogfish Head Craft Brewery) book Extreme Brewing just to get an idea of how to even start putting that much hops in a beer.

It turned out, after weeks of dry-hop additions and some extreme patience (one of the hardest things involved in brewing is waiting. Even though you know that it’ll be a much better beer in a week, or even two, quite often by the time it gets to its peak, someone’s drunk most of it in “testers”), that it was probably the best beer we’ve ever made and apart from some pointers from the book of crazy brews it was mostly an original, and a one-off. Or so we thought……..

In musical news; we held our first house concert last week involving a one-man lineup of me and my guitar. Lex thought it would be a good idea for me to play some of my most recent songs to a constructively critical audience before choosing one to submit to a local songwriting competition. After failing to bore the pants off all but one of the attendees I was quite impressed by the feedback I got and, as the song choice was almost unanimous in declaring a nominee, it turned out to be a worthwhile event. Well, again we’ll see after I submit to the competition. If it doesn’t do well then I can always blame it on the poor choice of song by my panel of overnight folk song experts!

The Eroders

April 12, 2010

From my perch, I can look East and up through the canyon and beyond, to where the grasslands and chaparral give way to dense oak forests and Gray pines, and eventually, way, way up there, to the snow-covered Doug firs and lodgepole pines of the Sierra Nevada. If I look to my right, the craggy canyon walls descend and eventually disappear, sliding into the vast valley floor so smoothly it’s as if they’re a conveyor belt continually depositing the Sierra Nevada Mountains and all that they hold into the northern section of California’s great central valley. And below me, straight out in front? Firstly there’s a little too much fresh air (what with me being a big ‘feartie’ and all), then there’s a smooth roll down through the grasslands and over the walls of the channel of Big Chico Creek and back up the other side in an almost mirror image. The woodland is denser over there and paired with the whitewashed cliffs underneath the peregrine falcons’ nest, that side of the canyon seems more remote and untouched compared with the miles of zigzagging scars that cut through the grassland and scrub on this side.

As I sit up here beside a solitary Ansel Adams-esque oak, with Skye pacing back and forth, nudging me to get back on the trail where things are far more interesting, two turkey vultures soar through the air only feet above my head. They cut so close I hear the air swoosh as they turn almost expecting the resulting wave of air to blow past me like the wake of a boat and I instinctively grab at my hat lest it disappear over the cliff. Once they are over us they rise up a few hundred feet before circling down the canyon and out of sight. It was at the moment that they left the imagined safety of the cliff top and were hanging over the canyon that my stomach lifted as if it were me that had just taken off and was floating there, hundreds of feet above the safety of solid ground. My heart and stomach were suddenly up near my ears; a strange feeling indeed. No rollercoaster, no bungee cord, or rolling waves, just my senses allowing me to be swept off the cliff with these two troublemaking scavengers. I do suffer from variously frightening degrees of vertigo but this wasn’t that sensation, which is more akin to the fear of falling and exposure; this felt more uplifting, less scary and was actually quite a pleasant experience, once the initial shock had subsided.

It was that experience that leads me to thinking about where I am and how I got here. I am, as you have more than likely guessed, on top of a large hunk of rock looking out over the variously green and brown expanse of Upper Bidwell Park. I got here by walking. I brought Skye up here for our (almost) daily exercise outing, which varies in length, place and structure quite significantly, just to keep her on her toes and to break the monotony of the daily poo-inspired walks dog walkers the world over are subject to. This particular walk is one of our favorites; we park a bit further up the canyon, away from the larger car parks filled with pot smoking youths, yappy little dogs with their equally yappy owners, and the hordes of inappropriately tight-shorted cyclists. This allows us more time with just the tress, the cliffs, the birds, and the deer (Skye is particularly keen on those) for company.

As we walk the various trails, most of which grow smaller and less used as we get further into the canyon, I get an increasing feeling of solitude, appreciation and awareness of what is around me, and ultimately, a feeling of ownership. It is that feeling that allows me to stray from the “designated trails” and walk the “undesignated trails” left behind by the deer and coyotes, and sometimes just go plain cross-country.

It was one of those environmentally damaging cross-country walks that brought me here, to this vulture-dodging cliff, and to this contemplation. The feelings of ownership, my knowledge and awareness of the creatures and plants that inhabit this place, do they allow me to ignore the system, to literally think myself incapable of causing erosion and damage? Of course not, in fact, I should be one of the people who annoy other park patrons by (politely) explaining the reasons for not walking on areas other than the miles of designated trails.

Surely of all the cars and trucks that are in the car park at Horseshoe Lake there are some that bring passengers that carry the same feelings of respect and understanding. I’m not sure what the people who display the “Keep Upper Park Wild” bumper stickers do when they come to visit; stick to the trails? Probably. I know the pot smokers are looking for the sheltered caves and hidey-holes, I know because I did exactly the same a million miles and years ago. They’re just looking to not get caught, and don’t care whether they’re on a trail or a moon landing. I know the yappy dogs and their owners stick to the trails; they don’t want to get their feet muddy. The hordes of before-Sunday-lunchers probably stick to the trails in fear of retribution from a higher power than the local Rangers. The mountain bikers are surely too busy staying upright to even see the trees. So who else is there? I know exactly who; it’s the hundreds of other people who consider Upper Park theirs. It’s theirs because they walk their dogs there every day, they go there to paint, draw, play guitar, take photographs, walk with their wives, husbands, partners, they go on first-date picnics, and hand-held sunset strolls, and most of all go there because it’s beautiful, and it’s theirs. It’s also because of them, people just like me, that we have “designated” trails, areas to be trampled and areas for only the feet of deer, coyotes, and quail. There is no intentional destruction, they are all aware of how beautiful this place is and how lucky we are to have it as our play area; it’s just that there is rather a lot of them. Too many to allow free reign over the place. If all of these visitors acted like me, well the place would soon resemble a motor-cross track, and we would lose the very nature of what it is that makes this place special to me, and to all the other users, yappy dogs and all.

My knowledge should be used to educate others, to enhance the park experience for all users, even as a member of the public, I should simply set a good example. But no, I want to explore the untouched areas, the remote hollows and cliffs, I want to be able to sit here. Surely my contribution to repairing the handiwork (or, excuse me, footiwork) of Scotland’s hiking public during my stint with the footpath crew and my years of repairing Sydney’s weed-infested bushland give me some credits towards making slight deviations into the unspoiled and most wilderness-like areas of my local park? Of course I can get to a lot of places just by using the trails system, but I couldn’t get here. I wouldn’t have had the experience with the hang-gliding vultures, nor would I have reached the spot where I found the Big Chico Creek version of Peter Dombrovskis’ Morning Mist photograph. I walk through those grasses, under those trees, with only the highest appreciation and respect for them. It is with only regret that I leave them to the trampling footprints and unseeing gaze of others.

4/1/10 Update

April 2, 2010

It appears that I have to come clean in public as I have underestimated the power of wierd artisan cheeses to get people salivating, and have also, apparently, put too much faith in some of my readership’s ability to spot a cunningly desguised joke.

April Fools!

Hope you had fun, I know I did.

Chico Caligata

April 1, 2010

Over the last few months my wife and I have been developing some new products which could, all being well, see themselves being showcased at the local farmer’s market this coming weekend and into the future. Our friends out at the Rancho de Caligata, with the help of some students at the University of Cohasset have been utilizing the prolific breeding rate of their herd of Hoary Marmots (click for link). We have developed a miniature milking machine which has enabled us to create several new and delicious lines of organic cheese.

Cohasset Caligata” is hoped to become a regular at both the Thursday Night Market throughout the summer months and, starting this weekend, at the Saturday morning markets. If interest in our new product is high enough we may have opportunities to expand into some local organic food stores. We have also applied for several “Craft and Artisan” cheese-makers grants to develop a larger production plant and upgrade from a four Marmot milker to a “ten teet” machine allowing faster milking times and therefore less stress being put on each animal. This upgrade would allow us to apply for the national “Humane Treatment of Milking Small Mammals” award which would help boost our appeal to organic and sustainable foods supporters and consumers.

At this stage we do not have capacity for online or shipping orders but hopefully we’ll have our website up and running within the next few weeks which will enable consumers and other interested parties to view production through our live-feed webcam. We are also in the process of internet profiling all the marmots to enable a more rounded eating experience, allowing consumers the opportunity to learn each animal’s personalities and choose which marmot’s milk their particular cheese will come from.

We are also looking into a Community Supported Caligata (CSC) system much the same as a veggie box or meat CSA. Please let us know if you are interested so we can gauge interest and therefore develop this system more fully.

Our logo is – “Happy Marmots Come from Chico”