Friday, January 13, 2012

Friends of HKS: Guest Blogger Series

I'm Jennifer Montero. I work on a private estate in South West England alongside my husband, who has the fancy title of Head Gamekeeper. He produces and releases pheasants and partridge for formal driven shooting, a traditional sport in the UK. 
I'm the 'gamekeeper's wife' - helping care for the birds, training our pack of gun dogs, shooting wild game and vermin, and producing stews and cakes year-round to keep the workers fed. In my not-so-spare time I tend to our animals, including my flock of Polled Dorset sheep, and 40 acres of our land. 
I'm figuring it out as I go along.
When Laura and Amelia asked me to be one of their guest bloggers, my first thought was “Wow! I’m honoured. But what the heck can I possibly write about that would interest their readers?” (My second thought was that they were both complete geniuses for outsourcing their blog posts during the holiday season. That’s why their blog is so good –they’re both smart cookies). 

Well, I don’t know a lot, but I’m learning a lot. In fact, pretty much every day of my life is a new challenge, from learning to spot-weld a hole in my trailer, to diagnosing sick sheep, to the etiquette of addressing British aristocracy properly.

I know, that sounds like a strange skills set to have. Let me tell you how I got here. Maybe I should tell you where I come from first. I’m American, but I’ve been living in Britain for the past 17 or so years. Except for that one year I spent in France. That’s where it all started.

Picture this: a non-French speaking, 30-something American woman rents a house in rural France because she dreams of starting a small farm. France has great weather, and the land is much cheaper than in England. She starts by digging up a long rectangle of turf in the middle of the lawn, then drives to Mr. Bricolage to buy seeds (her favourite store because Mr Bricolage is fun to say). She sows many rows of plants and flowers, ignoring the spacing guidelines on the packets. In fact, she ignores all the instructions on all the packets. She assumes nature will provide.  Nature should have provided her with some common sense.  Nothing comes up but a few weak green bean plants and a small crop of Cosmos (pretty but inedible). The moles move in. Gilbert, the octogenarian farmer who lives next door, comes over to show her how to ‘pique le taupe’ by pushing rose bush stems in the ground to deter moles (incidentally doubling both her French vocabulary and gardening skills at the same time). Then, the soil she dug over bakes hard due to the sun and a sparse watering regimen, creating a concrete-like cap over all the remaining seeds.

At the same time, the greengage tree in the garden fruits beautifully but, not recognising the edible bounty in front of her face, most of it falls to the ground and rots. (Gilbert’s wife made all of hers into confiture.)The woman realizes something: she doesn’t know anything about gardening. Or soil conditions. Or how much to water plants. Or seed sowing. Or farming techniques of any kind.

That was ten years ago. That woman – OK, it was me - came back from France humbled, with a big, long list of skills that needed undertaking. I enrolled in gardening school, took tractor-driving courses, and learned how to reverse a trailer, and use a chainsaw. Soon, I got a job on an English estate as a Head Gardener (hence learning to deal with aristocracy). Being in charge of a large garden was a stretch for my blossoming skills but I managed. And I got better at it.

I can look back over the past decade and measure my improvement, but while I was learning, it often felt like I would never know enough to succeed, or even to cope sometimes.

So, this is my manifesto for you would-be small farmers and urban homesteaders: JUST START. You will fail often, but you’ll get better. Start at the beginning with something. Maybe you don’t know how to ameliorate your soil to grow fodder maize. So grow potatoes in a tub instead. Maybe you are new to raising your own animals for food, and you’re squeamish about the killing process. That’s OK. You have not got to conquer all of it at once. There are intermediate steps you can take to get there. In fact, I can help you with this last one.

My husband is a gamekeeper so we eat a lot of pheasants. When I met him six years ago, I’d never plucked a bird in my life. I was scared the first time he presented me with a brace (i.e. 2 birds strung up by the neck) as a courtship offering (I know – what’s wrong with a simple bouquet of flowers!?!) So, as an interim step, I figured out how to get most of the meat offthe bird without facing the guts and gore. The bonus to this method is, if you’re short of freezer space, you can fit a lot more meat in your freezer to eat long after game season is over.

Start by buying a box of rubber gloves. There’s no shame in wearing them when you handle things you find kind of icky. If anyone asks, it’s for hygiene and to keep the smell off of your hands (both valid reasons).

I find it easier to emulate something if I can watch it being done (My knitting skills have improved since the advent of YouTube). I made this video so you could learn to process a game bird for food. I’m no techno whiz, so apologies for the amateurish filmmaking (See, I’m taking my own advice and starting anyway).

I call this process “NO Guts, ALL the Glory".  

See the Video HERE.

You don’t even have to kill anything to practice it. Hunters will give you a brace of birds ‘on the feather’ (i.e. unplucked), or you might pick up a fresh road casualty. In fact, the partridge in the video flew into an electric cable; we watched it hit the cable and fall dead in the road, right in front of our car. We had it for dinner, along with a teal I’d shot the night before.
I hope this technique will help you make use of an unexpected bounty. I know it means that you waste some of the carcase value – giblets, and the bones for soup-making – but it’s better than wasting a whole bird because you’re unsure or uncomfortable with plucking-gutting-trussing. You can BUILD to that skill. Until then, you can practice this skill, and have food for free.

And if you ever feel afraid about trying something new, remember: you’ll have to fail in a big way to beat the girl that moved to France to farm moles, bake clay in her yard, and harvest rotten fruit.

If you want to learn other techniques (or better yet, teach me some of your own), or read about my near-constant battle with nature, my flock of Dorset sheep, innumerable chickens, nine gun dogs, two cart horses, and a semi-feral husband, please catch up with me on my blog. 


  1. He Jen. As a long-time Milkweed & Teasel reader I feel like we got a 'bonus' blog here from you :)
    I like your story of moving to France to bake clay... There is a saying in Catalan which goes 'no-one is born already taught'. The ones that persevere (by coming back from France and making a list of things to learn) are the ones that succeed :)

  2. As you may already know, I adore your blog and am always fascinated with your life on the English countryside. I am no stranger to farm life but I am new to the concept of hunting/game keeping/sheep rearing/gun dogs/preparing wild game- so in these respects I consider you and your blog a bit of a mentor. I enjoyed this post because it helped fill in some of the holes about how you arrived at where you are. And as per usual your humorous words gave me a laugh!
    Thank you Jennifer for posting on our blog!:)


  3. Maria - It's great to see that M&T readers overlap with the HKS folks. I like your Catalan saying, and it's true that perseverence is the only way forward. It also helps if you have no sense of shame or embarassment about failure.

    HKS - Thank you both so much for inviting me to take part. We will continue to swap skills, though I'm happy just visiting your blog for the great photos of cute babies and delicious-looking food.

    1. So great to see a snippet of your fascinating life.

      Thanks again for posting!


  4. Love the video, I've always been held back from handling birds because of the feathers and guts...I think I can do this! Oh, I've been reading your blog for a while then found Harvest Kitchen Sisters through you, it was fun to get a cross over post.

  5. Yes, yay for crossover posts! Jen - having no shame is generally helpful I find :)
    PS I love the video - you make it look so easy!

  6. I gave your blog a Liebster Award!

  7. What a crazy-interesting post and life you have! Great post -- I'm now a M&T reader.


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