Apricot and Thyme Clafoutis

Hello, I’m back! Well, I haven’t really been away. Just away from my computer and my blog for a while.

We’ve had a really, really nice and relaxing ‘staycation’, with lots of lovely walks, visits to some old towns, cities and museums, and plenty of time to read, knit and crochet in between.

I’d like to tell and show you more, but I don’t know how just yet. I need to chew on everything we’ve seen and done for a bit first. In that sense I am like a cow. I don’t have four stomachs, but I also need to ruminate on things to digest them.

We met this beauty during our summer holiday, by the way. She lives on an organic farm that we passed on one of our walks:

The farmer doesn’t only take good care of his cattle, but also of the occasional passer-by. Between the barn with the red pelargoniums and the hay barn, where you can see a green parasol peeking around the corner, there’s a wonderful cupboard built into the barn wall. It’s filled with coffee, tea, biscuits and all kinds of other snacks. Just help yourself and leave some money in the box. There’s even a bowl of water for dogs!

Oh, there I go again, getting off course. It happens so often – one thing leads to another, and before I know it I’ve strayed completely from where I was going. Well, at least now you’ve had a tiny glimpse of our holiday at home.

What I had planned to do today, was give you a recipe. I may have told you before that we have a flock of hens – 8 hens and a cock to be precise. They are Frisians, and their colourway bears the poetic name ‘silver-pencilled’, which looks like this:

Our hens love tomatoes, corn, worms and taking dust baths. Apart from worms, we try to give them everything they wish for. In return, they provide us with more eggs than we can eat. We give lots of eggs away to relatives, friends and neighbours. And we’re always trying to think up new ways of using eggs ourselves.

The eggs are pure white and fairly small. I use 3 of these for 2 medium shop-bought ones. Some are oval and pointy, while others have a more rounded shape:

(I photographed the eggs on one of the dishcloths I’ve been knitting. More about those in another blog post soon. Or perhaps not so soon. There are so many ideas for posts whirling about in my mind that I don’t know where to start.)

Besides eggs, we’re also trying to use as many herbs in our cooking as we can too. This time I’m using thyme. We have three different varieties in our herb patch. Use any thyme you like – dried thyme from a jar is fine, too. Don’t use too much, though. It can be overpowering in combination with fruit.

The recipe below is for a Clafoutis – a French dessert that is usually made with cherries, but can also be made with plums or other fruit. I chose apricots because I thought they would work well with thyme. (I used canned apricots, because we can hardly ever get any fresh ones, and when we can they are often dry and not very tasty.) Here’s my recipe:

Apricot and Thyme Clafoutis

For a Ø 22 cm pie dish, serves 4

Ingredients

  • 3 small Frisian eggs (or 2 medium shop-bought eggs)
  • 150 ml milk
  • 50 g flour
  • 270 g tinned apricot halves (drained weight)
  • a few sprigs of fresh thyme (or ¼ tsp dried thyme)
  • 1 tbsp butter + extra for greasing
  • 50 g sugar
  • pinch of salt
  • icing sugar for dusting

Method

  • Preheat the oven to 200 °C (fan oven 180 °C).
  • Grease the pie dish
  • Sieve the flour together with the salt and sugar.
  • In a separate bowl, loosely whisk the eggs with half of the milk. Stir the egg-and-milk mixture into the flour little by little to a smooth batter. Melt the butter. Whisk the rest of the milk and the butter into the batter.
  • Distribute the apricot halves over the pie dish (hollow sides down). Pour over the batter and bake in the oven for 30 minutes.
  • Eat warm or cold, dusted with icing sugar.

Enjoy!

The table cloth underneath the oven dish was embroidered by my late Mum. She was a great knitter, too, but she loved embroidering these colourful pre-printed table cloths most of all. For me, there are many good memories attached to it.

Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed my ramblings and my recipe. And I hope to get back to some serious knitting in my next post, because I’ve received some urgent questions from readers that I need to look into…

Herb Teas and Honey Bees

Hello again! I hope you have some time in your busy day for a leisurely scroll through our garden, a visit to a beekeeper, and a cup of tea and some knitting afterwards. Or perhaps you’re on holiday and have all the time in the world. Wherever you are or whatever your day looks like – welcome!

Today, I’d like to show you a new part of our garden. A part you haven’t seen yet – our herb patch. It isn’t very big (about two by two-and-a-half meters) but I’m very happy with it. Here it is just after we planted it mid-May:

And this is what it looks like now, two months later:

Isn’t it amazing how quickly things grow? There’s parsley, chives, thyme and sage for all kinds of savoury dishes. There’s rhubarb for stewing, nasturtium flowers for decorating salads, and ‘wild’ strawberries for enjoying straight from the plant. I don’t know what to do with the marigolds yet. I could use them to dye some yarn, but what would I do with yellow yarn? For the time being I’m just enjoying them for their cheerful colour.

And finally, there’s chamomile, peppermint and lemon balm. We’ll be making herb tea with those later. But first, let’s get some honey to sweeten it. If we hop on to our bicycles we’ll be at the beekeeper’s farm in under an hour. It’s a nice route along a canal, past some allotments, through a wood, and along a country lane.

Here we are. There are jars of honey and an honesty box at the roadside. We could just grab a jar and head back…

… but it’s much nicer to have a chat with the bee keeper and take a look at the bees. We need to put on a special beekeeper’s jacket with hood first. The bees are very quiet today, but it’s better to be on the safe side.

Do you see the line of trees the beekeeper is pointing at? Behind them there’s a nature reserve, with heather and all kinds of other flowering plants, shrubs and trees where the bees get the nectar for their honey.

The beekeeper deprecatingly says, ‘Ah, it’s just a hobby. My dad used to do it before me, and I’ve followed in his footsteps.’ But to her own astonishment and delight both her bright and her dark honey won gold medals at the London Honey Awards 2019!

Most of the bees are housed in modern beehives:

These are far bigger than traditional hives, or skeps, and it is much easier to collect the honey from them. But she also has some traditional skeps, a sort of upside-down baskets. And even a wooden beehive in the shape of a house. It looks a lot like their own beautiful wooden house:

Zooming in on one of the skeps, the bees can be seen coming in and out of the opening:

It’s that dark clump at the top left. Can you see them?

This beekeeper isn’t complaining, but behind her words I can hear her worries about the threats her bees (and bees everywhere) face. They’re threatened by the varroa mite, pesticides and the drought caused by climate change. Things like this often give me a feeling of powerlessness. Yes, it’s worrying, but what can we do about such worldwide threats as insignificant individuals? Fortunately, in this case, there are a few easy things we can do to help the bees.

Apart from organic honey in jars, this small family business also produces other bee products, like beeswax candles, lip balm, soap, shampoo and so on. There’s more information on their website.

Well, high time to cycle back and pick some herbs.

One of my favourite herb tea blends is chamomile and lemon balm. A small handful of chamomile flowers and lemon balm leaves is enough for a cup or two of tea (dried herbs work just as well as fresh ones). I have a small teapot with a built-in strainer, but any pot or mug will do.

Add honey to taste and enjoy!

Next to this cup of tea is my first dishcloth in progress. I was skeptical about knitting these (I mean, how twee can you get?), but the enthusiasm of two of my knitting group members made me give them a try. And I must say, I’ve been bitten by the dishcloth-knitting-bug too!

Another favourite is mint tea. There are many varieties of mint. Wat we usually get when we order mint tea at a cafe is Moroccan mint, with a fairly mild and sweet taste. The mint in our garden, peppermint, has a stronger taste. It really is more peppery. Two or three small sprigs straight into a mug make a refreshing drink. I like it even during the very hot weather we’re currently having – I just leave it to cool first.

The blindingly white knitting on the needles here is the start of my Sideways Tee. There isn’t much to see yet, but as soon as I’m a little further along, I’ll show you more.

Well, that’s all for today. Thank you for sharing a cup of tea with me!

Balloo Wool Studio

Two days off plus a weekend with few planned activities gave me a lot of uninterrupted knitting time. I spent it knitting my Stay Soft shawl – row upon row of garter stitch. When I’d knit about a third of the shawl, I decided to rip it all back and start again (more about that soon). And while I was knitting more and more rows of garter stitch, my mind was free to roam.

I looked ahead, making plans for summer knitting projects. And I thought about spinning, too. I’ve finished plying the yarn on my bobbins, so my spinning wheel is free to take on a new project. I thought of the Drenthe Heath sheep wool I bought a while ago, waiting to be spun up, which made me think back to the day in April we visited the Shepherds of Balloo. And suddenly I remembered that I was going to write about their Wool Studio, too.

So here we are. My train of thoughts has transported us to Balloo Wool Studio:

The Wool Studio is housed in a wooden building across from the sheep fold, is open every day of the week, and is run entirely by volunteers. When the weather is nice, tea and coffee are served outside. On chilly days, visitors can warm up inside around the wood stove.

The volunteers have created a really cosy place, with books on the shelves and playthings for the children. And everywhere you look there is wool. Hanks of handspun wool hanging from a thick branch,

handspun wool on balls, and handspun wool made into blankets, sweaters, shawls, socks and much, much more.

Knowing how long it takes to spin up 100 grams of yarn, let alone an entire fleece, I was amazed by everything I saw. There was so much to see and such a lot of variety. Not just in the type of projects chosen, but also in thickness (or fineness) of the yarn used, and in the techniques.

On the sofa were two crocheted throws, made from grannie squares and thick yarn in various natural colours.

There were stacks of handknit items in a beautiful antique cupboard. Sweaters in all kinds of stitch patterns and a shawl with a knit-in sheep pattern.

Hanging in front of a window was a narrow scarf that made me look twice. What’s that? It doesn’t look like knitting or crochet. It isn’t woven either. What can it be? Oh, wait a sec, I think it may be bobbin lace.

What a great idea! Especially with the thick thread meandering through it. Here’s a detail:

What struck me was that almost everything I saw, was in the natural colours of the Drenthe Heath sheep fleeces. The only exceptions were a few brightly dyed balls of yarn on a shelf and this pair of adorable baby booties, with some green and red accents:

Other than that, everything was in one or more of the shades of white, grey, brown and black the Drenthe Heath sheep have to offer.

I think it’s wonderful what the people at Balloo Wool Studio have done with the fleeces of their flock. It’s so good to see that not all of our local wool is bought up for next to nothing to be shipped to China for low-grade uses.

Now it’s my turn to do something with it, too. As I told you in my previous blog post about The Shepherds of Balloo, I bought some unspun Drenthe Heath sheep wool during my visit – a plastic bag filled with batts of washed and carded wool:

I’m not a terribly productive spinner, so I only bought a small quantity. At a recent crafts event, I met the woman who washed and carded it. But that’s a story for another time…

May Miscellany

In May…

…all birds their eggs do lay, or so an old Dutch saying goes. But that’s not the only nice thing about the month of May. It’s also the month the vendors at our nearest Farmer’s Market put up their stalls again after their winter break. Visiting this market is a real treat.

The singer who is always there with her guitar, welcomes us with Dolly Parton’s ‘Play a song for me, Apple Jack, Apple Jack’, and other old favourites. The music creates a great atmosphere around the twenty or so stalls.

We always buy a punnet of strawberries. These are so much tastier than the ones from the supermarket. And sometimes we buy some delicious handmade goat’s cheese, too.

New to the market this year is a lady with felt objects, like hats and scarves, as well as handspun yarns. I wouldn’t immediately know what to do with her riotously colourful skeins, as I usually choose quieter yarns (maybe combine them with a matching solid colour?), but they’re a joy to look at.

I love chatting with other crafters about the things they make, about what moves and inspires them, the techniques they use, and so on. So I asked the new lady about the ‘fleece’ hanging at the back of her stall. I’ve seen fleeces like this before, felted onto a woollen background, but always made from the wool of just one sheep.

This crafter, however, combined wool from different sheep breeds to create the fleece in the photo below. She mentioned at least six breeds. (But I don’t remember a single one. Sorry, my brain was also having some time off.) It shows beautifully how greatly sheep’s wool can vary.

Apart from the colours, ranging from white through grey and russet to almost black, the structure of the wool varies too. There are some long straight locks, some fluffy, wavy bits of wool, and some very tight curls.

Birds

Now on to those birds laying their eggs in May. Our nest boxes are often used by blue and great tits (picture below), but I’m not sure who is using which nest box this year. We don’t want to disturb the birds, so we don’t open the boxes to look what’s inside. I’ll just have to spend more time in the garden watching flight movements.

In our beech hedge there’s a blackbird’s nest – or perhaps even two. And just above our bedroom window there are two house martin’s nests. These were first occupied by squatters – two families of cheeky sparrows, whose chicks have already fledged. I’ve seen the parents feeding small pieces of peanut from our feeder to their young.

After the sparrow chicks fledged, the house martins returned from the south. They set about cleaning out and repairing their nests straightaway. I can’t look inside to see whether there are any eggs in them, but I’m pretty sure both nests are back in use.

And the winner is…

I started the month of May with a blog post about a gift of yarn from a friend. In it, I asked for your help in choosing between two patterns I had in mind, called ‘Stripe Study’ and ‘Stay Soft’. I have now counted the votes, and Stay Soft came out on top. It got an overwhelming majority of the votes: 70% for Stay Soft against 30% for Stripe Study.

Now you may think, ‘Huh, but there was only one person who left a comment, voting for Stay Soft! How did you arrive at these percentages?’ Well, many people seem to be hesitant about leaving a comment on a blog. I quite understand. I often read blogs without commenting, too. That’s absolutely fine. What I got instead were phone calls, emails and face-to-face reactions.

So, Stay Soft it is going to be. I’ve already made a start.

A funny thing that struck me, was that most knitters voted for Stay Soft, while most non-knitters voted for Stripe Study. Why would that be? We talked about this in the knitting group I belong to, and one of the members said: ‘It looks like non-knitters focus more on the end product, and knitters more on the knitting process.’ Isn’t that an interesting thought?

Thank you to all of you who helped me decide.

Knitting at the Sugar Factory

Last Friday I took the 8 o’clock train to Groningen, to visit the Northern edition of the Knitting and Crochet Days. I’d planned to add a few centimeters to my take-along project, a scarf in 4 shades of green, or perhaps even finish it. But after knitting less than a row, I discovered that I’d dropped a stitch quite a few rows down. I hadn’t brought a crochet needle to fix it, and as this particular yarn (Rowan’s ‘Kid Silk Haze’) is notoriously difficult to unravel, there was nothing for it but to stuff my knitting back into its bag.

Oh well, just looking out the window at the familiar landscape rushing by was very nice too. Along the route I met up with a friend, and together we arrived at the Old Sugar Factory, where the fair was held.

Sugar production is an important industry in Groningen, a city surrounded by large fields of sugar beets. I still remember the sweet and musty smell wafting through the air from September to January from the time I studied here. What you see on the photo above is only part of the original building – the rest of the factory has been demolished.

The rough edge of a partly demolished wall frames the window of the trendy in-house café, where my friend and I sat drinking endless mugs of tea.

For me, this edition of the Knitting and Crochet Days was very much a social thing, with lots of familiar faces from the North of the Netherlands, the region where I grew up.

Queuing for our tickets, we hugged our first knitting friend. The next familiar face was the cousin I am forever grateful to for teaching me my very first knitting stitches. And then there was a knitter whose blog about her knitting, walks with her dog and life in general I’ve been following for over ten years. And after that…

No, that’s quite enough socialising. Let’s get back to what we’re here for – knitting materials and inspiration. The fair as a whole was rather underwhelming, to be frank. But, focusing on the positives, some stall holders had outdone themselves with beautiful displays of yarns and knitting projects.

Here’s an impression (click on images to enlarge):

My favourite of all was Atelier Lindelicht, with its rainbow of hand-dyed colours:

The owner, Marianne, lives in a neighbouring village. She started out as a designer of felt ornaments, but now also dyes yarns in very small batches. (Sadly for those of you living further away, she only sells her yarns at fairs and markets.) What I like about her yarns is the quality of the materials and the depth of her beautiful jewel-like colours.

My eyes are drawn especially to her blues, pinks and purples (see the picture at the top of this post, too).

This time I didn’t buy any of her lovely skeins, though, as there are several in my stash waiting to be knit up. In fact I didn’t buy any yarn at all at this fair.

What I did buy was a set of interchangeable circular knitting needles:

I already have one exactly like it at home, so why buy another one? Well, I use some of these needles almost every day, and sometimes need more than one of the same size at the same time.

The set (Twist Red Lace small) contains 7 pairs of 13 cm long needle tips ranging in size from 2.75 to 5.0 mm, as well as three cables in different lengths. There are also 2 end stoppers (the white rectangular things), 2 keys (for fastening the tips to the cables) and a cable connector, 12 stitch markers in 2 different sizes, and a needle gauge (the white ruler).

It’s quite an investment, but I know that I’ll enjoy using it for years to come.

Before we knew it, it was time to go home. One last picture of some of the inevitable graffiti on the factory building:

The bicycle parked against it, gives an idea of the size of this work of art.

To be honest, I felt slightly out of my comfort zone in this industrial setting. I didn’t name my website for the blackbird (Turdus merula in Latin) for nothing. We (the blackbird and I) are birds of woodlands, gardens and other green spaces. I tried very hard to approach this days’ urban surroundings with an open mind. And my mind could really appreciate the raw aesthetics, but my heart… not so much.

My heart said: Ah, so happy to be back in my natural habitat!


Note: This post isn’t sponsored in any way. I just write about things I like because I like them.

The Shepherds of Balloo

On Sunday morning we decided on a whim to pay the shepherds of Balloo a visit. It was a lovely day for a walk and I hoped we would see some newborn lambs.

When we arrived, the doors of the sheep fold were open. We could see that it was empty and the sheep were out, which was only to be expected in the middle of the day.

In 2011, the old fold was destroyed by a terrible fire. Fortunately, enough money could be raised to rebuild, and there is a new, very light and airy fold now.

Looking inside we could see the fresh, golden straw on the floor and the wooden feeders filled with hay. In cold and wet weather the ‘windows’ can be closed with a kind of roller blinds.

The area where these sheep roam is not very big, so we should be able to find them. The wind was a bit nippy, but otherwise it was a lovely dry and bright day. The start of our walk took us along a cycle track:

Very soon we turned right, onto a sandy path and the heath. Although spring has arrived in our garden, the landscape here still looked bare and wintry.

I haven’t discovered how to share the sounds and smells of our walks with you here other than catching them in words, so that’s what I’ll try to do. Well, I don’t know about the smells, but for a soundtrack to this walk think of the soughing of the wind and the song of skylarks, climbing higher and higher into the sky. Nothing else. No cars, no planes, no traffic noise at all.

We didn’t have to walk very far before we spotted the flock of sheep in the distance:

Walking on, we lost sight of them for a while. Why? Well, in my pictures the landscape looks flat, while it is in fact slightly undulating. But soon enough, climbing a hillock, we suddenly saw them again. And sitting in a sheltered spot, leaning against his rucksack, was one of the two shepherds who own this flock, keeping an eye on his sheep.

And he was not alone. His two sheep dogs were with him. One of them is a border collie, like many other shepherds in this area have. And the other one is an Australian Kelpie. Meet Woods:

Oh, what a lazy dog! Just lying around enjoying the sunshine instead of minding the flock. Or is he? Look at his ears – they are not resting at all, but on the alert all the time. And as soon as they register something he sits up:

The shepherd told us that Woods is a dog with a natural instinct for herding. A really reliable dog. ‘If we get back to the fold at the end of an afternoon and Woods keeps looking back, you can bet your boots that there’s a stray lamb left behind,’ he said.

Talking about lambs – where are they? Well, as it turns out we were a bit early in the year. There were only six lambs as yet. They were hidden among the adult sheep, but I was able to take a snapshot of two of them. Can you see them?

These sheep are again of the Drenthe Heath sheep breed, about which I wrote in A Chat with a Shepherd. And here, too, their main job is nature conservation.

The shepherds of Balloo have the biggest flock in this part of the country, with over 400 sheep before the lambing season. As is usual for Drenthe Heath sheep, their colours range from (almost) white to black, with other colour variations in between.

What interests me, of course, is what happens with the wool. In the Middle Ages wool was an economic factor to be reckoned with, and the wool trade brought great riches to parts of Europe. But we live in different times.

At my knitting group, last week, I was shocked to hear that another shepherd with Drenthe Heath sheep receives literally nothing at all for his fleeces! His fleeces are shipped to China, as some kind of waste product, to be used in the carpeting industry.

At Balloo things are looking better, I’m glad to say. Along one wall of the fold I saw stacks and stacks of plastic bags filled with fleeces.

Fleeces in all of the colours Drenthe Heath sheep come in are offered for sale. Each bag has a label describing the specific properties of that particular fleece. I read things like: ‘Ideal for felting’, ‘Good quality for spinning’, ‘Fleece with especially long locks’, etcetera.

An entire fleece would be  too much for me, at the moment, but fortunately I was able to buy a smaller quantity of wool. I am looking forward to trying out how it feels in my hands and how it spins up. I need to finish spinning and plying some other wool on my bobbins first, but when I have something to show, I’ll definitely let you know.

More information

There are two websites dedicated to the Balloo sheep. I don’t quite understand why. One seems to be the shepherds’ own website, and has information about the flock and the wool studio (more about that some other time). The other website provides similar information about the flock, as well as a description of the landscape.

A Visit to a Norwegian Spinning Mill

Hello! Welcome on board the ferry from Kiel, Germany, to Oslo, the capital of Norway.

Today we’re travelling back in time to 2006. The year our family of three spent a Summer Holiday in Norway. One of our destinations is a spinning mill on the west coast, a little north of Bergen.

But before we get there, we’ll be seeing some sights along the way. I won’t bore you with our complete family photo album, but I do want to show you a bit of this beautiful, rugged country that has such a great knitting tradition.

Our accommodation for most of this holiday is a tent. It isn’t big, but it’s comfortable. And we’ve even brought some chairs.

From Oslo we are first travelling north, to Jotunheimen National Park. This mountainous area is ideal for hiking. There are miles upon miles of hiking trails, the main routes clearly marked with big red T’s on rocks.

The scenery is breathtaking, the air is clean and fresh, and – apart from the sound of wind, water and birds – silence reigns. (Click on pictures to enlarge.)

I hope you’ve enjoyed these walks and are not too stiff and sore from the unaccustomed climbing. Leaving Jotunheimen, we’re now travelling in a southwesterly direction.

At Borgund we visit a stave church from around 1200 AD. The roof of this wooden building is decorated with both dragon’s heads and crosses, and there are intricate wood carvings around the entrance. Inside it is rather dark, as the windows are small. The wood is charred and tarred for preservation, which gives off a very special smell.

Our next stop is Bergen, the second largest city of Norway (280.000 inhabitants). These are the wooden buildings at Bryggen, the colourful historic harbour front:

Bergen is notorious for its rainfall. There’s a well-known joke about it that goes like this:

A foreign tourist visiting Bergen in a downpour addresses a local boy, ‘Boy, please tell me, is it always raining in Bergen?’ The boy answers, ‘I wouldn’t know, Sir. I’m only six.’

We’d heard the joke and decided to rent a cottage in the area instead of putting up our tent again.

It is painted in Scandinavian red and one corner of the roof is supported by a knobbly tree trunk. Inside everything is made of unpainted wood – the walls, the floor, the furniture. On our menu is a lot of salmon, as well as Pytt i Panne, a traditional one-pot dish with potatoes, leeks and ham.

From the cottage it is only a short drive north to Hjelmås, where we are going to visit a spinning mill, called Hillesvåg Ullvarefabrikk.

Hillesvåg Ullvarefabrikk was founded in 1898. Some of the machinery from the early days is still in use. The front door of the building opens right into a small shop brimful with yarn and ready-knit socks, woollen underwear and sweaters.

We ask the lady behind the counter if we could, perhaps, take a look around the actual mill to see the yarn being spun. ‘Of course,’ she says, and she calls the general manager, who kindly gives us a tour of the premises. He tells us that all of the wool they process is from Norwegian sheep.

First he shows us how the wool is fed into the carding machine…

… and is carded by roll upon spiky roll to align the fibers, and produce a sliver ready for spinning.

Then we see how the carded wool is spun onto yarn spools.

The yarn is dyed in big vats, in over a hundred different colours. (Unfortunately we didn’t take any photos of those. At the time I had no idea that I’d ever be publishing this on a blog. Had I even heard of blogs in 2006?)

Back in the shop it’s time for another look at the colourful yarn display. After much deliberation, I finally decide to buy the kit for the ‘challenging’ cardigan I mentioned in my previous post.

Nowadays, Hillesvåg Ullvarefabrikk is an Economusée, which means that they are still a working mill, but now officially give guided tours.

Well, it’s high time to get back on the ferry for the return journey. I hope you’ve enjoyed your mini-holiday in Norway. Thank you for travelling with Merula Designs and I hope to see you again soon.

Note: This post is not sponsored in any way. I just like talking about knitting materials and where they come from. (Not that I would mind being sponsored by the Norwegian Tourist Board but, alas, they haven’t discovered my blog yet.)

A Chat with a Shepherd

By far most of the sheep surrounding us are of the well-known Texel breed. Stocky, white-fleeced sheep, like the woolly lady enjoying a bit of wintry sunshine in the picture at the top of this post.

When I started spinning, decades ago, I only spun Texel wool at first. Simply because it was the only wool I could get at the time. Since then I’ve tried out various other sorts of sheep’s wool and non-sheep fibres. Even some nutria (also known as coypu rat). Ugh, never again! But let’s not get distracted – back to sheep.

We do have other sheep breeds in the Netherlands – 67 other breeds, in fact. (I didn’t know that. I looked it up.) One of these is the Drenthe Heath sheep. There are several flocks of Drenthe Heath in our part of the country, and we sometimes meet them when we’re out walking.

On one of our Sunday walks I already spotted them from a distance. How nice that they’re here today! (We never know exactly where they are – it’s always a surprise.) But when we came closer, something seemed different. Strange. Wrong.

Normally they roam freely over the heath, but this time they were all huddled together.

Huddled really, really closely together. Look:

That was decidedly odd! And where was the shepherd? We stood watching the sheep for a while, wondering what was up. Meanwhile I took some close-ups of individual sheep. Most of them are whitish with a brown or golden head and legs, but there are also some grey and black ones among them. (Click on the images to enlarge.)

Then the sheep dog, a Border Collie, came back with the shepherd close on its heels.

We asked him (the shepherd, not the dog) what was the matter, and he told us that one of the sheep had broken a leg, jumping into a ditch. He’d had to carry it back to the fold and herded the rest of the flock closely together to keep them safe while he was away for a while.

He also told us that the flock consists of 380 sheep now. In spring, after lambing, it grows to 700-800. The sheep’s job is nature conservation. Their grazing keeps the heathland open, like this:

Every sheep eats about 5 kilograms of plant material a day. So, in winter the flock eats 380 x 5 = almost 2000 kilograms per day! Without the sheep, the area would soon be overgrown with shrubs:

The shrubs would be followed by trees. And the heath, with all its rare flora and fauna, would be gone within a decade. Thank you so much, dear sheep, for preserving this beautiful habitat for us.

Although these are the native sheep around here, I’ve never spun any of their wool. To be honest, I actually know very little about Drenthe Heath sheep or their wool. So when we got home I got out my Fleece & Fibre Source Book.

Yes! They’re in the index – go to page 313. And what does it say on page 313? The breed is mentioned under Zwartbles, as one of its ancestors, ‘the horned and hairy-fleeced Drenthe (outside the scope of this volume)’. Not very helpful.

Well, I’ll have to go looking for more information elsewhere. There’s always the internet, of course. Or I could visit some of the flocks and chat with other shepherds. I know that the Shepherds of Balloo have a wool studio, but I’ve never been there. A visit during the lambing season would be something to look forward to.

And maybe I could try spinning some Drenthe Heath wool. I don’t know what it’s like or if it would be suitable for knitting. Do any of you reading this have any experience with the wool? If you do, I would really appreciate it if you’d tell us about it in a comment.

To be continued…

Weihnachtsmarkt

The first weekend of December we drove up to Germany for a change of scene. Our destination, the city of Münster, is not all that far away from where we live, really. It is the same distance as from our place to, say, The Hague. But it is an entirely different world. The same Euro, but different houses, a different landscape (hills!), different food and a different language.

Apart from visiting the Christmas Market, I had planned to visit a yarn shop and report back to you here with some inspirational photos and stories. I’d found the shop on the internet and looked the address up on the map. But… I forgot to go there!

How could I forget to visit a yarn shop? What was wrong with me?!?

The only explanation I have is that I was overwhelmed with all the sights, sounds and smells of the Weihnachtsmarkt. So that was my blog idea out the window. What to do now?

I could try to give you an impression of our day. Maybe you’d like a virtual mini-holiday abroad. And maybe then you’d understand why I forgot about the yarn shop. Would you like that? Come along then.

The Weihnachtsmarkt in Münster actually is not one Christmas Market, but five smaller ones, in different locations around the historic city centre. The booths are tiny wooden houses, some painted green, some painted blue, and some left untreated in natural wood. Many of them have lovely decorations along their gables and on their roofs. These life-size wooden deer were on the roof of one of them:

The warm smells of food and drink greeted us as soon as we set foot on the first market. First of all there’s glühwein, of course, with its wonderful spicy and fruity aroma, and similar drinks like Punch, Grog and Feuerzangenbowle, with or without alcohol. There is the smell of roasted chestnuts. The piney smell from the literally hundreds of Christmas trees placed all around the markets. And the smell of salmon roasting over a wood fire.

There are lots of delicious things to eat on the Weihnachtsmarkt. One of the things I like best is Reibekuchen, grated potato cakes, served with apple sauce. But this time we chose sautéed mushrooms in a creamy sauce and Rauberfleish, a sort of mix between goulash and chili con carne, for lunch. And we couldn’t resist the famous German Kuchen, of course. I was too busy enjoying the taste of spicy plums covered by a layer of crumbles to take photos. But I did take a picture of some of amazing loaves of sourdough bread.

They were absolutely huge. We estimated that they must weigh over three kilos each!

There’s music all around, too. Christmas music coming from the shops. Music from street musicians, some very talented, some not so much. And around noon, walking along a river from one market to the next, we heard church bells ringing, a deep and sonorous sound.

The booths sell all kinds of lovely stuff, from Christmas decorations, to jewellery, wooden toys, beautiful hand-carved wooden figures and home accessories.

There are stacks and stacks of hand-made soaps, some fresh, summery and flower-scented, and others spicy and fruity.

And candles, of course. Candles in all shapes, sizes and colours. My favourites are natural beeswax ones, with their beautiful golden glow and subtly sweet honey scent.

There’s some knitwear, too, albeit machine-knit. Socks, shawls, scarves and hats. And lots of wrist warmers. The ones in the photo below are made from alpaca. They looked a bit stiff and scratchy, but were in fact extremely soft. Gorgeous colours and patterns – I would really like to knit some like these someday.

So many lovely things, so much to see.

So, what did I buy? Ehm… nothing. Overwhelm at work again, I think. But I really needed some presents, so at the very end of the day, I rushed back to one of the booths selling teas and tisanes and bought some delicious fruity & spicy teas. Mission accomplished.

Now, almost two weeks later, writing this and looking at the pictures, I think: What a wonderful day. And at the same time I am still shaking my head and muttering: How on earth could I forget to visit a yarn shop?