Back to the future with chooks (or how not to buy a hen house)

IMG_2772 (6)Over the last year I have been focusing on little changes that make our home feel a little more ‘homely’. I wish I could say that this has resulted in a massive decluttering and streamlining of our living areas, surfaces and bookshelves. Alas, this would be a big fat lie. Instead I am preparing the way for chooks.

When I was a very small child our family had two chooks, a large black orpington called Blackstack and Honey a bantam. They were charming and lived in an a-frame hutch at the bottle of our suburban garden. They would allow themselves to be held and to sit on the handlebars of our bikes to be wheeled quietly about. We would feed them warm mash in winter and sprinkle wheat about to their great hopping and darting excitement.

They taught me how to keep a hen quiet when lifting the sweet heavy heft of a fat bottomed chook.  I learned to take responsibility for looking after their food and water.  They were endlessly amusing to watch, and I have always associated the sound of their slow contented clucks and murmurs with a particularly happy time.  They were also productive, a warm, fresh egg in the hand straight from under the chicken was a child sized miracle, especially when one was a tiny banty sized egg.  And as a budding gardener it always seemed to be to complete a satisfying circle to be able to use their bedding and poo to make plants grow better.

Later, as a teen in lifestyle block land we had a flock of brown shavers.  Some of these hens were rescued layers with mutilated beaks who had to be taught to use the perch and to forage. This, more than anything, illustrated for us the great cruelty which is factory farming, and since then I have always paid above the odds for ethically farmed eggs.

While our brown shavers had less in the way of identifiable personalities, they had spirit. They would escape their pretty orchard occasionally and do their best to lay anywhere other than the warm dry, purpose designed shed provided for them. By the time a rogue clutch was discovered ( the biggest contained 22 eggs), it was often too late for the eggs. The smell of a recently broken rotten egg is physical confrontation with the fullest extent of stink.

Now for health, fertiliser and probably sentimental reasons I am looking to reintroduce hens to the back of our section. My mother-in-law and her siblings remember when they had to cart the household scraps up to the chooks in our backyard in central Auckland some seventy years ago. A meal of chicken was a rare treat then, with zero food miles on it.

Local bylaws now permit us to have as many as six hens. For sanity and neighbourly relations, perhaps it is a good thing that roosters are no longer an option.

So, housing was our first priority. A search on TradeMe showed there was very little between cheap and nasty Chinese manufactured hutches in poor thin fir wood and $800 palaces. So my first very idealistic idea was for the boys to build the hen house as a jolly togetherness project (hey, I never pretended to be clearsighted!). I even paid for and downloaded some plans from the net to take to Bunnings for pricing up.   After two weeks’ mucking around I was feeling like I should change my relationship status to ‘in a relationship with the nice but ineffectual guy at Bunnings Trade Desk”.   The eventual outcome was that it would cost me $1500 to build our own house and even Mr Bunnings recommended I head back to TradeMe.

Back at TradeMe I just happened upon a very nice little used plywood house which I bid for and won for $375 (worth about $900). All that remained was to take a trailer out to Karaka to pick it up which my beloved and my Dad very kindly consented to do.

IMG_2780 (2)A piece of advice to anybody looking to import a large structure for their back yard? Um, measure it. It had looked about right. Unfortunately the space through which it had to travel was approximately 10cm too narrow when you took the nesting boxes into account. My very kind and capable Dad then took it apart. Showers of ants, slaters and white tailed spiders jumped ship as he worked. We carried the pieces through, and then he nailed it back together. This was some distance above and beyond the call of duty. To his very great credit, not a single word of reproach was uttered. I think I owe him one for that alone.

Next:  Decorating the decile 10 chook house.

 

 

 

Dining on mince and slices of quince….

quince botanicalThe quince carries associations of medieval times and walled gardens which I find very intriguing. The fruit tree itself is sufficiently ornamental to make it a tempting choice for the garden. Spring’s prettiest pink and white blossom is followed in late summer by large hard yellow fruit, with a strong pineappley fragrance.

Usually when I have encountered quince, it has been in the form of neat little pottles of solid fruit paste. Quince paste is a lovely choice served with a sharp cheddar or a tangy blue. Dark apricot in colour, it has the sweetness and grittiness of a pear with a slightly more perfumed flavour.

Quince isn’t widely sold commercially, but I spotted a basket of pretty pale lemon quince for $5/kg at my neighbourhood fruit and veg shop and I was tempted to try a little something new.

Paris based cook and my go-to dessert guy David Lebovitz has a good recipe here and a gorgeously rustic quince tarte tatin recipe here . He also found that a lovely waste-not-want-not ruby red quince jelly emerges from reducing the poaching liquid, as quince is very high in the preserver’s best friend, pectin.

I discovered that raw, the fruit is far too hard and tart to eat.  In Turkey, the expression ayvayı yemek (literally “eat the quince”) means a bitter taste in the mouth or unpleasant situation to avoid. But peeled, cored and cut into sections quince can be poached slowly and at length in a sugar syrup with the spice of your choice, vanilla, cinnamon, star anise. The flesh is pale yellow to begin with, and develops a rich pink hue over cooking.

For my first foray into quince cookery, I poached three sliced quinces in a syrup made with brown sugar syrup and a sliced vanilla bean. Aside from the slight trickiness in peeling, cutting and coring such a hard fruit, it really was as easy as stewing apples. The amazing fragrance coming from the kitchen had all family members sitting up and taking notice.

Poached quince makes a delicious dessert with vanilla ice cream, crème fraiche or Greek yoghurt.  In the unlikely event that you have leftovers, it will make or a particularly decadent breakfast fruit with muesli.

Now, I’m starting to wonder where I could make room in my garden for a quince.

Botanical Image credit Wikipedia, artist Philip Miller

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