"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Meat Madness (Weighing Options)

I have a neighbor who raises beef cattle, Mr. B., and we have bought beef from him several times in the past. It's wonderful stuff, he has gorgeous pastures, but we haven't bought any the last few years. Not last year, because we had our own cow butchered (she was a cull from a dairy that couldn't be bred, but she made a decent meat animal), and not the year before because we waited too long to ask him, and he'd already sold it all. He doesn't butcher very many steers in any given year - maybe 12 or 15 - and he told me that usually he sells all of it to extended family. I took that as a hint that I should look for beef elsewhere.

This year, we have Homero's nieces living with us again, which means dinner is for seven every night. We all like beef, and eat it pretty often. The freezer was almost empty. We were down to the last few packages of hamburger from last year's cow, and so I went on the hunt for grass fed beef on Craigslist.

Wow, the price of beef has really gone up in the last several years. I can't remember for sure what the price per pound was the first year I bought beef (2008) but I know it was under $2/lb. I think it was $1.80. This year I couldn't find anything under $3.50/lb hanging weight, which means by the time you pay the cut and wrap and figure in the 20% discard, you are paying around $5/lb for the actual beef you are going to eat.

Not that that is a high price, speaking in absolute terms. Around here, if you can even find local grass fed beef in the grocery store, it starts at $6.00 for the hamburger and goes up from there. The really nice steaks are probably over $20/lb - not that I would know! So don't think I'm complaining! However, it does mean you have to come up with a big chunk of change all at once.

I finally resigned myself to paying the going rate, and spoke with a lady in Lynden. She had a half a Hereford to sell, and she said I could buy the half or just a quarter if I preferred. The meat was already at the butcher's and would be ready in a week or so. She said he was a good sized animal, so I bought a quarter. We'd wait until the butcher called me with the final weight before I paid her.

Then, that Sunday, I went to church and saw my neighbor. Over coffee after the service, he asked me if Homero and I would like some beef this year. He wasn't certain, but he thought he'd probably have a little extra.

"If it turns out I do, would you want it?"

"Yes," I said, instantly deciding it would be a good idea to get back on his list of customers.

"Well, I'll let you know."

Now I had a conundrum. Should I cancel on the lady with the expensive beef? Mr. B.'s price was considerably lower. But what if it turned out Mr. B. didn't have any beef after all? Or what if he only had an eighth? Homero and I talked it over and he said to go ahead and buy the quarter anyway, to be on the safe side. We'd certainly eat it.

When the butcher called me a few days later, however, I was in for a surprise. The final hanging weight was 250 pounds! For those of you who have never bought your beef by the side, let me assure that is a LOT of meat. The steer must have been one gigantic animal. At $3.50/lb, plus the cut and wrap, I would be spending something like $1000 to put it in my fridge. But there was no option - the meat was mine.

Mr. B. spoke to me again at church the next week. He said there was a half for me. I smiled and said "that's wonderful, thank you so much!"

There's no way we could get through THREE QUARTERS OF A COW by ourselves, especially when one of the quarters is nearly as big as an average half. Luckily, my sister said her family would split the half with me. We simply called the butcher and told him we wanted to split it, and each of us gave our cut and wrap orders.

Now the freezer - 18.5 cubic feet; a big freezer! - is packed to the brim with meat. There is so much beef in there that we can't butcher the baby goat because there's simply no place to put him. We had to remove a few gallons of cider and drink it up to make room. There are worse problems to have than a surfeit of high quality beef. So we'll have to eat beef more often this winter than I would have guessed. Oh, Rats!

Monday, October 10, 2016

Fall Fermentation (Wine and Cider)

Plum wine in the autumn sun 

The satisfactions of living off of one's own land are many and varied. It is, for example, delightful to invite my extended family over for Thanksgiving and feed them on turkey we raised ourselves and apple pie made from the apples on the trees of our own orchard.  It makes me happy and proud to throw a big birthday bash for Homero and give his Mexican friends the pleasure of an old-fashioned goat barbacoa such as they remember from their younger days back home in Jalisco or Oaxaca; the slaughter, butchery, and the digging of the pit oven included. These pleasures still lie in the future this year - imagining them is one of the distinct joys of this short ephemeral season. 

This is my favorite time of year - after the heat of summer has dissipated and the leaves have turned and are falling, creating a crisp, fragrant carpet underfoot - but before the rains have turned everything into cold muck. The sky these past several days is a cool, cerulean blue, and the trees are ninety different shades of gold, orange, burgundy, and brown. I try to let the goats out every afternoon to forage on the dry leaves and blackberry vines, and on the fall-flushed grass before the first frost comes and kills the nutrition. 

Today I enjoyed the unique pleasure of sitting out in the late afternoon sun on a warm October afternoon and drinking a glass of beautiful, pink, home-brew plum wine. I'd have to page back in this blog to find out when, exactly, I started this batch of plum wine. I don't want to do that - bathed as I am in the rosy glow of the same. Let's just posit that the wine was ready, today, for bottling. I decided to do it today not because of any learned examination of the wine itself, but because I had finally collected a sufficient number of large brown bottles. Corona beer puts out a "family" size that measures 36 ounces. There were eight of them lined up today, and I decided that the time was ripe. 

I have never made wine before - though I have made apple cider a few times. In fact, I made apple cider earlier this year. That's a funny story, and a lesson. We pressed apples on three separate occasions this year, which is three times more often than we usually do. Faced with many gallons of fresh juice, I decided to try making hard cider. I'm not the kind of person who cautiously measures and precisely calibrates anything. I'm more of a "wing it" kind of cook. I'm a good cook, I won't ever say I'm not, but I am much better at soup (such a forgiving medium) than I am at baking cakes.  When it comes to brewing, that means I am not going to be exactly certain of the strength of my creations. 

A few weeks ago, I bottled this year's cider. I bottled it in these same 36 oz Corona bottles. My husband, seeing them lined up on the mantle, decided he was thirsty and didn't feel like going to the store. Accustomed as he was to downing one of these hefty bottles full of Corona, he did just that. But the bottle was full of home-brew cider. Hard cider that you buy in the store is usually more or less beer strength - 5 to 7%. I, however, used a champagne yeast, and my cider was at least twice as strong as beer. Maybe as much as three times. Had my husband consulted me, I would have told him to drink it like wine, not like beer. Alas, he did not. 

I have never seen Homero so drunk. He was accidentally drunk, so it doesn't reflect on his character at all - but it was pretty funny nonetheless. Poor man could hardly speak, and hardly stand up. I had to put him to bed. My main regret was that he had downed  too much of the limited supply of cider.

Most of the plum wine was bottled today in the same size jugs. I simply capped them with bottle caps instead of using wine bottles and corks. My local brewer's supply store rents out a corking machine, but we don't drink enough wine to have bottles to use. I asked about using beer bottles and capping them like this, and was told that if we drank the wine within the year it shouldn't matter at all. 

No problem there. I drank about one-tenth of it today. Such a beautiful afternoon and evening. I absolutely love days like this - crisp enough that other people complain of the cold, and I can feel superior and smug sitting out in my shirtsleeves. Especially on days like this, when I have completed all my housework and I can take a book outside with me to read without remorse or guilt. Well - only the delicious guilt of reading trashy fiction instead of anything "serious." 

A canvas slingback chair, a cheap novel, a jug of new plum wine, and the sunset......