Ramble On

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Mary's Chairs Project

The chairs - before.
A couple of springs ago, one of our neighbors put out some nice wooden chairs during "big trash day."  Mary spotted them and thought they would be worth the effort to recycle.  She even went and knocked on the neighbor's door to make sure that they were okay with that.

I should mention that Alexandria sends around a notice about big trash day about six months in advance.  There are folks who scavenge the night before, checking out the various piles of discards for something of value.  It's quite competitive, and for some reason our neighborhood gets a lot of traffic.

In the group house I lived in when I first moved to the DC area, my room mates had made a big score on big trash day over in the Westover neighborhood, near East Falls Church Metro.

They'd found an original, marked, Heywood Wakefield coffee table - but for some reason, when the house broke up, no one took it.  Now it sits in the living room at Hawksbill Cabin.

So the fact that Mary was able to score these chairs is really saying something.

The chairs - after.
The project lay idle for a couple of years, but she decided last spring to pull the chairs out of their storage area and check out what needed to be done.  It was a straightforward job of stripping of the old finish, which was peeling away, and was the reason they were tossed in the first place.

She also sanded them down and tightened the screws.  Then she painted them a flat white to match our other porch furniture, and there they sit.

Of course, with the hurricane on, none of us are going out there to check them out.  But I do fancy lighting up a stogie out there sometime this fall.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Fall Foliage Photos

The view from Balkamore Hill, just north of Stanley, VA.
Well, here we are hunkered down during Hurricane Sandy.  I was thumbing through the photos I have saved on my phone and realized I hadn't put up some of the foliage highlight shots I took last weekend when we were out at Hawksbill Cabin.  This weather is going to hasten the end of the foliage - as you can see by the Skyline Drive photo I've put in at the end of the post - but for now, it's good to remember it in the face of this week's apocalypse.

The first photo is the one from up on Balkamore Hill - where the bike races take place.  I often take that route as part of my drive back from the park with Tessie.  It was a nice view with the fall colors last weekend.

Back in the wood lot, looking up through hickories and oaks.
Another of our rituals during the fall and winter is a walk back into the wood lot.  I don't do this in the spring and summer when the snakes are on the move, even though Tessie will stand at the beginnings of the path and wait for me to come along.  We have a lot of hickories back in there, their golden color making a highlight.

Dogwoods and the still-green apple tree in the front yard.
In the front yard, we have some nice trees of species that are well known for their foliage, including a dogwood or two.  Here's a peak at them from the driveway, with the little patio off the main bedroom just in the view on the left.  The strong angle of the sun required me to stay in the shadow of the house.

It's a pity, but with the rain, wind, and possible wintry mix of precipitation, the leaves will be all but gone when we're next out.  But we'll see about that!

Closing out the post today, here's a photo I clipped earlier from the Internet.  It's from one of the Skyline Drive webcams, near Big Meadows (which is only four miles from Hawksbill Cabin as the crow flies, and about 3,000 feet above it).  As you can see, they're getting snow up there today - the forecast said anything above 1,500 feet would - and the drive has been closed.

Brr!  And it's not even winter yet!

Big Meadows in Shenandoah National Park, via webcam, 10/29/2012.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Barn Cats

Sometime in the early summer we noticed this litter of kittens taking shelter around the shed, mostly under the lean-to where some old building materials are stored. Four of them, and sometimes when the mother showed up - barely more than a kitten herself - five.

They stuck around, and later we learned that the neighbors had been feeding the mother, so she stuck around the area and considered it home.

About a month later, I saw four more kittens in the front yard, emerging from under the pool deck.  It wasn't long before we saw the mother there, too, and we also learned that the mother was being fed by the neighbors.

Ten stray, un-neutered cats. Well, over the course of the first month or so, one of the kittens from the first batch, and another one or two from the second, had been killed off or died.  They're strays, and nobody is reliably taking care of them - we don't live there full time and have no intention of adding feline pets, certainly not seven or eight of them, to the family.

We started looking for sources of help with getting these guys adopted out or relocated to a place where they could be looked after.  We found out that there is a nonprofit called Cat's Cradle in the Valley - web site is http://www.catscradleva.org/ - that will catch, neuter, and release feral cats like this bunch.  Seven feral cats is a good start on 50, for Pete's sake after all.

So the adventure began - there was an evening of trap setting, and eventually everybody was caught.  Here's the first litter - having lost one of their siblings by this time.

It turns out that with the long hot summers we've been having, cats are having two heats a year - it's very important to get this under control.

We also caught the mothers of both litters, and some of the younger litter, who turned out to be too small for the operation just yet.

Now, they're all back.  They're free to live a feral life around the Hawksbill Cabin, although Mary feeds them on the weekend and the neighbors pitch in when they can.

I guess you could call them feral with emerging domesticated habits.  They know when they're going to get fed and they emerge from hiding places all over the place when they hear the food bag.  And they've started to interact with the humans around the place.

Sunday when I got back from errands I saw the little black striped one sitting up on a fence post near the shed.  I guess they are getting personalities too.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Local Brewers

Dan told me that a group of folks interested in brewing was organizing in the Page County area.  They've named the group The Blue Ridge Brewers Association - there's a blog, linked in my blogroll, and their doing lots of other things to organize.

Yesterday was the regular meeting.  There was serious business to cover:

1) a local effort to develop a local source of malt for brewing - a farmer has planted about 3/4 acre of two row barley for this purpose;
2) a visit from the folks over at Copper Fox Distillery over in Sperryville, where they are already engaged in crafting malts for their products, and for special orders nationwide; and
3) results from a tasting given at the Luray Downtown Initiative (LDI) and the prospect for another soon at the Luray Caverns CX.

As I mentioned, this is the first of the meetings I'd attended.  There was this obscure item on the agenda that I was especially curious about, called "Around The Cooler."  This ended up being the tasting section of the meeting - quite a few of the members had brought samples of their latest or a recent batch, or even a commercially available craft brew.

Although I had found a bottle of my recent Belgian Black on Saturday, I figured that one 22 oz. bottle wasn't enough to bring for this purpose.  I hope to have something to share in the future, however.

In any case, it was quite an educational program, as we progressed through a couple of items you wouldn't traditionally expect to find at a homebrewers' meeting:

  • Kabuchi - a fermented tea
  • A Marzen-style lager
  • A Belgian Chimay-style
  • An IPA
  • A porter
  • An Imperial Stout
  • Whisky from Copper Fox
We also had some very tasty sauerkraut and wursts...There's more to come from this group!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Next Batch: Chocolate Maple Porter

The mash of chocolate malts.
I'm not normally one to go in for strongly flavored beer.  I just like...beer.  But for some reason when I got started on this home brewing hobby, I bought a one gallon kit to make up a Chocolate Maple Porter - and I brewed the batch last weekend.

I just moved it to secondary fermentation last night, using an old Carlo Rossi Paisano gallon jug that I have pressed into service as a carboy.  Here are some photos - bottling will be next week.

Primary fermentation in my recycled wine bottle.
Now, I should note that the only flavoring added here is the maple syrup - I used some from that jug I bought in upstate NY last spring.  The roasting style of the malts imparts the chocolate flavor - there's nothing added to create it.

I'm finding brewing to be as interesting and relaxing as grilling has been, so I'm likely to keep going with this to build my skills.  I even took off to the homebrew store here in Alexandria last weekend to buy some supplies and check out the ingredients they have available.

I used the Gingered Vagabond Ale recipe from Papazian's "The New Complete Joy of Home Brewing" (Amazon link below) as a resource to shop with.  The store had all the requisite grains, yeasts and hops...so I'm good to proceed.

First, though, I've got to break out the five gallon mix of IPA that I've had stored in the basement - I want to try my hand with that one over the next few weeks.  I will be using some of Dan's Cascade hops in it, and also the packet of Calypso hops he gave me, substituting them for whatever's in the kit.

Also of interest, the home brewers' club out in Luray has a meeting this weekend, I hope to get by there to meet my fellow brewers.  They're also keeping a blog now:  http://blueridgebrewers.blogspot.com/.

More to follow, I'm sure!

Here is a link to the Papazian book, and another with some good recipes:

The New Complete Joy of Home Brewing

Monday, October 15, 2012

Wisteria Vineyards Harvest - A Wrap

Here's a view of Big Meadows Mountain in Shenandoah National Park,
as seen from some of the new vines at Wisteria.
 Mary and I had a great time during the late summer and early fall getting to know some of our neighbors as volunteer grape pickers at Wisteria Vineyard.  Each weekend morning as we went over to the vineyard, we joined a dozen or so friends from around town who’d come out to pick the Seyval, Traminette, Chardonnay, Merlot, and Norton grapes.

Here's an orientation of the vineyard - the harvest
progresses more or less from right to left.
Although the hour was a little more civilized and there weren’t any stalls to muck out, I’ll chalk up the experience as another “internship” – similar to the one I had last year working with David at Public House Produce, where I learned “up close and personal” about the craft of raising excellent local food and agricultural products.     

I posted about the experience in more detail a few weeks ago (http://hawksbillcabin.blogspot.com/2012/09/scenes-from-vineyard.html ), but as volunteers we helped during the early stages of the winemaking process.  We picked, then worked the destemming/crushing equipment, loaded the wine press and watched as the juice or early wine poured out and was loaded in the casks to complete fermentation.  Then we cleaned up – and there was a lot of that, but it was fun too. 

The barn, where the sheep and chickens reside, at Wisteria.
Behind is the Blue Ridge and Shenandoah National Park.
Just as I have learned with my new brewing hobby, cleaning up is a big part of the process for these crafts.  There are estimates that it takes 20 gallons or so of water to make a gallon of wine, because of all the cleaning.  In my home brewing experience, I’d say that I probably use five gallons for every gallon I make, although I may be more efficient when I start making five-gallon batches.  But all of this effort is meant to ensure you have a high-quality, safe, and tasty end product.

And that is definitely what you’ll find at Wisteria Vineyard. 

Red grapes, the last harvest at Wisteria.
For Hawksbill Cabin readers, if you happen to be coming out to visit the vineyard, give a yell – we’re only a half mile away, and maybe we can meet you there.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Home Brewing

The Bruxelles Black - first tapping!

After so much encouragement from neighbor Dan, co-workers Tom and John, and friends Stan and Brendan, I decided to try my hand at homebrewing.  Stan’s been doing this forever, and then Dan has his hopyard out the back, so these things raised my curiosity.  Other friends have posted their process and experience on Facebook.  

Then Tom built himself a keg vault down in the basement; and I’ve been treated to watching them brew five-gallon batches – a wheat with Stan, a coriander-spiced Belgian with Brendan, and Dan’s Flat Tale IPA. 

The new brewers' association Dan helped to start.
The stakes keep getting raised.  Now Dan has formed the Blue Ridge Brewers Association, with regular meetings that are educational about the craft of brewing – with samples.  He also bought a 15-gallon set-up, and he’s had talks with local farmers about how to get a plot of barley suitable for brewing going, and then how to establish a malting operation.

Brewing with the one-gallon kit.
So I finally broke down and bought one of those beginner kits at Williams-Sonoma.  It included a one-gallon set-up with an IPA mix.  Before I even got started with this set, I also bought a five-gallon brew kit, although I haven’t yet broken that one out – I did upgrade to a brewer’s pot though, with six-gallon capacity.  I’m all set, if I ever get serious about it.

So far, my exploits have been to make three one-gallon batches.  The first was an IPA, and it was marginal.  For two reasons:  first, I was clumsy and wasted a lot of it during the bottling process, so we never got a good taste of it; and second, because I probably missed an instruction or two and didn’t end with the fullest, richest beer I might have.

My second batch was much better, a summer brew that was called Honey Grapefruit Ale – I managed to bottle almost the compete gallon in a set of 22 ouncers I have been saving up.  And the third, which has been sitting in bottles for the last 10 days, set for opening tonight, is a Belgian Black Ale, shown in the photos here. 

The bottled yield of the Bruxelles Black.
I opened the Belgian Black Ale with Dan last weekend, and we liked it.  It lived up to its appearance, and it is different enough that I could specialize in it and possibly end up with something really special.  So I am going to try it again soon.

I still have a one-gallon fall brew to go: a chocolate maple porter.  When I’m done with that one, I’m planning to move up to the five-gallon set up, since I’ll have been through the process a few times and feel pretty confident of it.   I have an IPA lined up for the first batch. 

Down the road, once I have a batch or two under my belt, I will probably substitute the hops provided in the kit with some of Dan’s homegrown Cascades and a pack of Calypso he gave me.  That’ll be a treat.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Visitors - and a Trip to Luray Caverns

The iconic bell tower at Luray Caverns, with Mary's Rock
in Shenandoah National Park in the background.
Last weekend our friends Kelly and Tom came out to Hawksbill Cabin for a visit – seven-year old daughter in tow.  The kinds of recreation we might have taken in during the old days aren’t available here, even if those were the choices we might have made for the weekend.  Fortunately, seven-year old Erin had come prepared with research.

A scene in the caverns - a small underground lake here.
High on her list were Luray Caverns, our most famous landmark here in Page County, and the corn maze up at Valley Star Farm, which I had sent along in a short list of things I thought might be fun to do.  To these we added a stop at Wisteria Vineyard for the “Music Under the Arbor” with Marcos Brown and the Sugartones, a trip to the Luray-Page Farmers Market to see some friends, and a cookout on Saturday night.

I have a few photos here of highlights in the Caverns, including one of Mary, Kelly and Erin with our tour guide Chad.  This may be the moment that Kelly asked if anyone had found the white sweater she lost during a school trip when she visited the Caverns in second grade, when she was seven.  Chad courteously directed her to the lost and found above ground. 

Getting our money's worth from tour guide Chad!
As far as the story of Luray Caverns goes, they were found in 1878 by some local farmers – there’s a little sign in the Caverns marking the spot where they first went underground.  The Wikipedia article on the Caverns offers a pretty colorful history on the development of the property as a commercial enterprise, but you can cut to the chase about modern day attractions on the website at www.luraycaverns.com .

We didn’t get to enjoy some of the other highlights there – including the museums that are included in the price of admission, or the two mazes that have been constructed on the grounds.  We’ll save them for another day.  

However, on Saturday, we had visited the corn maze and pumpkin patch at Valley Star Farm north of Luray. 

Another cavern scene, I think this formation
is called "The Fish Market."

Although Mary and I never go into the maze, the pumpkin patch is an annual stop for Mary and me, and we often bring visitors with us to this spot, which is as scenic as any here in the Valley.  Here’s a past post about one of our visits in 2008:  http://hawksbillcabin.blogspot.com/2008/09/valley-star-farm.html

Looking up at the caverns' ceiling, I found
the algae interesting.  Must grow due to the
combination of lighting and moisture.
Tom and Erin went into the corn maze, where there is something of a scavenger hunt set up for the kids to explore and learn about the farm.  When the scavenger hunt is over, the kids visit the little farm store to turn in a visitor card, earning the youngster a pumpkin from a special bin – followed by an ecstatic search for just the right one.

An unexpected theme of the weekend happened while we were at the pumpkin patch – seven year old Erin lost her sweater, just like Kelly did in that long ago school trip to Luray.  We searched all over for it, including the lost and found at the pumpkin patch.  

It’s gone to sweater heaven, maybe they’re even together now.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Random Grillin'

Here are a final two photos from the Smokin' on the Track contest.  I took these mainly for posterity - one of the guys at work has the same Weber style set up the guy next to us was using, and then the other is one of the other neighbor's beer can chicken. Or maybe they were turkeys - because that group's members certainly were.

It's a long story, but one of them had been drinking all day, and he thought he was quite the funny man.  A bit of a smart ass if you ask me - then later his antics got them disqualified.

They'd driven down from Pittsburgh, and they had an elaborate set-up.  So I bet they had the ride home they all deserved!

Monday, October 1, 2012

What's cookin' - at Smokin' on the Track

So the grill was lit, some preliminary socializing was out of the way, and we'd even had our health inspection.  The long and slow cooking parts were underway.  It was time to begin planning how our items were going to come off the grill and get lined up for submission.

The schedule for submitting the chicken. ribs, pulled pork, and brisket was pretty tight, all set at 30 minute intervals in the afternoon.  I set my watch, which has five alarm settings, to go off with thirty minute notice for each of these, which are shown in the first photo. Then we got to cooking - brisket and pork were the first in, as shown in the previous post.

These next three images are of the pulled pork - first when we checked on it midway through cooking, second when we pulled it out of the smoker and began breaking it down, and last, just before submission, as we presented it..
I have to admit, this was my favorite part of the contest.  We felt like we'd done a good job on this, and with second opinions from a few friends and family, we were getting good feedback.  We were proud to put this one up in front of the judges.

But we only finished 10th or so on this.  We learned later that the instructions for this meat specified that the sauce would be mixed in with the pork - we had a prized recipe that we had cooked up on the side, but we couldn't figure out how to submit it, and we had overlooked the instruction.  So we'll have to see how we do next year on this.

Next up are the brisket and ribs we submitted.  The brisket came out just right, as far as being done and cooked tender.  But it had begun to dry out a little, since we finish it early and took it off the heat, and then took it back up to temp before allowing it to rest so we could slice it.  We ended up fixing this with just a little brush of sauce - and these placed fifth overall out of 20.

The ribs had their own special considerations - Jared carefully sliced them off from bone to bone - with a bone in the center.  So the lucky judge would actually getting two ribs' worth of meat with these.  They were done with a dry rub - again no sauce, and we placed about the same as we had on the pulled pork.

Finally, here's our chicken.  We had prepared two batches, one with a traditional rub, which is what we submitted, and one with a Greek style lemon and oregano marinade.  That one came out great too - but we decided we should go with the traditional recipe for the contest.  That turned out to be a good decision - we placed third in chicken.

Finally, Dwayne, Jared and I waited to hear how we had done in the overall category.  With a third in chicken, and a fifth in brisket, we'd already done better than we expected in our first competition, but the two lower finishes in pork might set us back a little bit.  They only announced the podium finishers, but they passed around the final results (and later they posted those on the web):  

Two Fat Farmers and a City Slicker placed fourth overall!

We all had a great time and we're looking forward to next year - or the next contest.  We'll keep you posted!