Concerning Chickens (and a Recipe).

The mornings are cold.  Frost clings in sharp little lances to everything, the sky is a pale blue blanket, and we all shiver underneath.
dscf3960My morning routine is a chilly one; let chickens out, defrost chickens, feed chickens, stare at the sunrise until my eyes freeze over, drink tea.  I worry that the chickens are too cold, but the inside of their house is reassuringly warm.  We’ve taken to feeding them cracked corn in the evening as a last feed, as they digest it more slowly than pellets, and this helps keep them warm throughout the night.  The problem seems to be that they love the corn a little too much, and are beginning to turn a haughty beak skyward at the sight of their usual feed. Remaining strong and not giving in to their more ‘refined’ tastes is a battle of wills, as I am a softy.

They are eating a great deal more than they did when we first got them at the end of thedscf3954 summer, and they are still laying daily – a surprise, as the shortened hours of daylight should mean that their laying slows down during the winter months.  I am not complaining, although as chickens only have a finite number of eggs in them I worry about them running out.

A friend in the UK got in touch to let me know about the current DEFRA ban on moving chickens, and the fact that he has to keep his inside, due to outbreaks of bird-flu.  There is bird-flu in France, but far to the South and the West of us, and not yet in Saône-et-Loire, our département.  There is also a turkey festival in Marcigny today (no idea, I’ll tell you when I get back later), so the locals are clearly not too concerned.  I keep an eye on the news, and the chickens, and I worry.

I worry that I am worrying about chickens too much.

dscf3923The fruit trees are all planted.  As I planted them, I pulled even more scrap metal from the ground, along with sheets of plastic, and an entire car windscreen.  Even here, in what seems to be a culture that works more closely with the land, people buy things and use things with no plan of how to dispose of them.  Manufacture, buy, use, bury in the ground and hope no one notices.  A microcosm of capitalism, in my field.

On misty mornings we spy deer and wild boar, and there is a black woodpecker who pecks away at the same tree, each morning, Morse Code patterns in the fog.

In the evenings we light the fire, and eat hearty, warming food, and delay going to bed as it is so cold upstairs we can see our breath.

There has been no recipe here for a while (I wonder how many of you, Dear Readers, want or follow my recipes), but there is one today.

Boudin-Noir with Apples, Potatoes, and a Honey Mustard Sauce.dscf3945

(serves 2 if you’re greedy like me)

This is a properly seasonal supper (yes, pig’s blood is in season right now), and a rich, filling, simple way to push away the chill of the day.

Ingredients

(for the sauce)

2 shallots, finely diced

250 ml dry white wine

250 ml stock (I used pork stock, because I had some in the fridge, but a good organic chicken stock will do nicely)

2 tsp mustard seeds

2 tbsp Dijon mustard

1 tbsp honey

The leaves from 2 sprigs thyme

Salt

(for the rest)

300 g boudin-noir (or black pudding – they’re not exactly the same, but close enough for us), cut into 2 lengths

2 large floury potatoes, cut into chunks

1 large eating apple, cored and cut into thick slices

1 onion, thinly sliced

1 clove garlic, minced

Salt

A handful of curly parsley, finely chopped

Quite a lot of butter

Method

Cook the potatoes until just tender, drain, and set aside.

In a small pan, cook the shallots in a little butter until soft.  Add the rest of the ingredients for the sauce and bring to a simmer.  Reduce by about 2/3 until quite thick, season to taste, and set aside.

In a large non-stick frying pan, melt a little butter and cook the boudin-noir until warmed through and a little crispy on the ends.  Remove from the pan, set aside somewhere warm, and cover.

Add more butter (yep) to the pan, and cook down the sliced onion until soft and just starting to brown.  Add the cooked potatoes, apple, and garlic, and fry until the apples have caramelised and there’s some lovely crispy bits on the potato.

Place the boudin-noir back in the pan, pour over the sauce, cover, and let it sit on the heat for a couple more minutes to warm it all through properly.

Season to taste, scatter the parsley over.

Eat straight from the pan, and try not to worry about chickens.

 

Mushrooms.

dscf3824We awake early to a foggy morning, wrap up warm (it’s cold now, summer didn’t last forever after all), and let the chickens out.  They, as is their wont, stare at us, gurgle weirdly, and then proceed to continue digging to China.  They seem to have settled in nicely.  The last few days we have received four eggs each morning, one from each chicken, and the eggs have increased slightly in size every day.  I take this as a sign that the hens are happy and well fed (as are we, thanks to the eggs).

As the sun burns away the last ghosts of mist, I wander the perimeter of the farm, gathering rosehips to make more syrup (the last batch having disappeared, mixed with sparkling white wine, fairly rapidly).  We have had deer and coypu visiting us, but no sign of a fox (although this may be deliberate on the fox’s part).  The day is warming up nicely, and my thoughts turn to the wild.

The forest near us can be seen from the farm, jagged tops of pine trees pointing to the sky on the horizon.  It’s a mix of managed pine woodland, and ancient, wild tangles of oak and beech and birch.  It goes on forever.dscf3832

I hop on my pink rusty trusty bicycle, and pedal along the lanes.  Buzzards and egrets, outraged by my presence, flap up and away from the fields as I pass, the sun warms my face, and I remind myself that is not yet spring, that we still have a winter to get through. I have been preserving and pickling the little bits of produce I have been given, or foraged, since we arrived, to bring a tang of warmer times to our winter meals, and the last on the list is mushrooms.

It was a very dry summer here, and mushroom season has been delayed.  In fact, there is talk in some regions of the poorest wild fungi harvest for years, although compared to my foraging in and around Bristol (dear Bristol, how are you?) it’s a positive glut.  We’ve had a few days of wet weather, and I’m hopeful.  One can buy foraged mushrooms in the local greengrocer; trays of girolles and hedgehog mushrooms and trompettes de la mort. Almost everyone here seems to pick some kind of mushroom, be it field or forest, and it’s not a fashion or a fad, it’s simply something people do.   We’ve had folk stop by with boxes of field mushrooms, and even someone who called in to let us know about a patch of parasol mushrooms he’d spied from his car.  I like these people.

I have a spot, not far into the woods, that I’ve had my beady eye on for ages, as it looks ideal for ceps and other boletes.  A bouncy, mossy forest floor, green and bright, beneath some old, widely spaced pines.  In my experience boletes like edges and clearings, a bit of breathing space, and I’ve spotted a couple of fly agarics (those fairytale toadstools), a good sign, as they like similar conditions to ceps.

Righto, warning time.  This all sounds very bucolic and lovely, and it is, but mushrooms could put paid to that, neither swiftly nor gently.  Eating a misidentified fungus or plant will end horribly.  I shall not go into the details of organs shutting down or the no hope of treatment horror.  Get some books, learn from an expert, never eat anything unless you are one hundred percent sure that it is what you think it is.  The saying ‘there are old foragers, and bold foragers, but no old bold foragers’ is worth remembering.  Even in France, where mushroom hunting is embedded in rural culture, there have been, this year alone, several cases of mushroom poisoning.  Be safe.

I arrive, sweaty and somewhat out of breath, all arms and legs perched like a heron on a too-small pink bicycle, at the forest edge.  I lock the bike to a tree, and start up the path into the woods.  I am passed by two cars, driving along the dirt track, departing.  Foragers, sir, thousands of ’em.  They got here before me.  Curses.  I get to the spot I have in mind, and it is covered in mushrooms of all shapes and colours and sizes – fly agarics, various russulas, false chanterelles, but nothing edible (or certainly not what I am after, anyway). I get an awful feeling that an hour ago, the forest floor was covered in a million perfect ceps, and they are now in those cars, the occupants laughing and joking to each other and juggling mushrooms.  This is probably not quite true.

There is an annoying habit that some mushroom hunters have of picking anything vaguely the right size or colour, and discarding it if it is not a bolete (boletes have pores instead of gills, so it is easy to tell by looking at the underside of the cap), so the ground is  littered with broken and overturned fungi; a sure sign that someone has been here before me, and an unnecessary, even damaging, thing to do.

The fact that, every year, the woods are combed and picked through by locals yet, every year, the mushrooms return en masse brings doubt to the recent controversial picking ban in the New Forest in the UK.

dscf3831From my days of tramping the woods of South-West England, I recall finding ceps in hollows in the ground and under piles of fallen branches, so I nose around, lifting things and generally getting covered in leaves and dirt.  But there they are.  Bay boletes, not as highly regarded as the cep, but delicious nonetheless.  They’re picked and cleaned in situ, and popped in my bag.  I untangle myself from the undergrowth, and head deeper into the woods.

I pass several people, all wandering around, eyes to the ground, baskets or buckets in hand.  We acknowledge each other with a polite “bonjour”, each silently cursing the competition.

I decide to get off the path, away from these usurpers, and fight my way past a huge pile of logs and into a clearing. Soft green grass underfoot, sunlight ribboning through the trees, and a fine collection of ceps, from tiny to huge.  Jackpot.  I fill my bag, resisting the feverish temptation to pick everything in sight, and head home.

“Holy Schmosbey!” exclaims ML (don’t ask) as I come in the door laden down with mushrooms.  Even the cat looks impressed.  Now to preserve them for later use.

Preserving mushrooms.

There are several ways to preserve mushrooms.  Cooking and freezing works well, and youdscf3835 can salt, pickle, then cover with olive oil for a classic anti-pasto style nibble.  With ceps and other boletes, drying is my preferred method; the flavour is concentrated, and the mushrooms may be reconstituted later in water, or powdered into an umami-rich seasoning for soups and stews.  It is advisable, of course, to eat a few straight away – butter, garlic, bacon lardons, hot sourdough toast.

To dry your mushrooms, simply brush them clean, removing any troublesome wildlife (maggots are not delicious, even fried in garlic and butter) and trimming away any blemishes.  If you have some older specimens, especially with bay boletes, it might be a good idea to remove the spongy pores with a knife or your finger.  Slice them thinly (though not paper-thin), and pop them on a rack so the air is able to get all around and in between.  Place them somewhere warm – I put mine in front of our wood stove – until they are completely dried out.  They will shrink alarmingly, but do not fear, all the flavour is still there.  They can now be stored in a clean airtight jar.

I picked around 3kg of fresh mushrooms, which yielded 2 large jars of dried to help see us through the months ahead, and I may well head back to the woods tomorrow.

There is snow forecast for next week, time to batten down the hatches.  It’s going to be a long winter, and we arrived too late to grow any produce to keep us going.  We’ll light the stove, and eat eggs and dried mushrooms.

The Chicken and the Egg.

The chicken run is finished.  Finally.  It became something of a personal Hadrian’s Wall. (Hen-drian’s Wall?  Anyone?  No?)  This is the first fence I’ve ever built, and it’s a surprisingly satisfying thing to do.  We found a chap in a village about two miles away who makes and sells acacia fenceposts.  He has a massive yard full of different sized posts, whittled, or more probably chain-sawed, to a point.  He’s a man of few words (not easy to deal with on the phone), and I think we may have confused him somewhat.  We arrived in our little Clio and asked to buy as many as we could fit in without making the car look too much like a failed teenage tagger-on in a Mad Max film.  The farmer’s sons appeared and watched as we jammed pole after post into the boot, seats down, windows open, and they remained as taciturn as he, as we paid (a whole one Euro each), we waved, we drove off, wobbling slightly as I got the point of one post in my ear. dscf3577

All the fences around us are made of the same wood – it’s hard and durable and seems to turn to stone after a year or so.  We bought some wire from the local hardware store, and I set to work with a variety of tools for digging things and hitting things.

Some previous owner of our farm has hidden a large amount of treasure in the ground, if treasure is springs and nails and bits of concrete, and the job of digging a trench to bury the bottom of the wire made me feel like Sisyphus appearing as a contestant on the Crystal Maze.

We’ve made good use of various pieces of stone and metal we’ve found lying around to help make the chickens’ house (an old brick tool shed), and the run, as chicken- and fox-proof as possible, although apparently there are weasels to worry about; basically carnivorous pipe-cleaners that are impossible to stop without hermetically sealing the whole of Burgundy.  I’ve also used a load of English lime tree branches that we were given, to make the fence a bit more attractive (for the chickens), and the gate to the run is made from some old kitchen cabinets donated by ML’s parents. Repurposing old rubbish and waste materials is where it’s at.

Some second-hand wooden chairs from a charity shop have been adapted using some wooden veg boxes we were given by our local greengrocer, to make some nest boxes and perches, and we bought some dust-free wood shavings for the floor.  We got a plastic feeder and a plastic drinker and some chicken-feed and some broken oyster shells (good for their calcium levels and their method of digesting their food) and some more wire to plug some gaps – the cost of starting a flock soon adds up, and we’ll need to get (and eat) a lot eggs before they pay for themselves.

But this is not the point.

When I was a child my parents kept hens.  I have vivid memories of collecting warm eggs on chilly mornings, and of the life they bring to a home with their odd ways and funny behaviours. We want to give them as pleasant, as natural, and as long a life as we can. We’ve provided a stack of logs and sticks in the run (they are evolutionarily a woodland bird) so they can hide and play.  All of this for an omelette.  When they stop laying they can peck out a retirement that many a Brit dreams of; in the sun of a rural retreat in France.

This morning we took a trip to the weekly market in Marcigny, where you can buy everything from slippers to sausages, and spoke to a guy there who was selling chickens. He had cages and cages of birds; chickens, ducks, geese, quail.  We talked to him about what we were after (good natured chickens, good layers) and he sold us four hens, all of them six months old and already laying.  They are vaccinated, and he told us about some more care and treatments to consider; using cider vinegar and honey as natural preventatives and medicines. We’ve got a couple of books and zero experience, so it’s heartening to realise that there is advice available from someone who feels as we do – look after the chooks well, show them kindness, don’t use too many drugs, and they’ll live long and prosper. And hopefully lay some eggs.

dscf3722Arriving home with four chickens in the boot of the car, excited and a little nervous, we pulled up to the chicken house and examined our preparations.  Is it good enough?  Will they like the shade of blue on the door?  I opened the box and gently lifted the hens out, one by one, and stepped back as they had a cautious look around.

We removed ourselves so as to minimise any stress, and the chickens popped out of the house into the run.  They started pecking at the ground and scratching away, doing all those things one expects of ones chickens.  They seemed to be taking it all in their stride.

dscf3752Except for one.  As soon as she was in the run, she made straight for the corner where we were standing, and stared at us, making a noise like I’ve never heard before, something like a mix of a creaking door and a submarine.  Which was odd.  She then jumped up, and onto the corner fence post.  A bid to escape?  Well, we’ll have to clip her wings if she continues to try, I thought.  I entered the run and grabbed her, placing her back down on the ground, and she seemed relatively unfazed by me.  I dscf3761decided to stay with her in the run to see what happened.  What happened is this: the hen marched up and down, submarine noises and whistles aplenty, and tried to escape four more times before deciding that I was much more interesting.  I sat on the ground and she clambered all over me, on my legs, on my shoulders, making those odd noises.  I thought there must be something wrong with her, she was so docile, and so I stroked her and murmured to her, like a weirdo.  Finally she settled down on my lap and seemed to be asleep.  After around five minutes she awoke, perked up, and the noises did not reappear.

The chicken got up and strolled away, seemingly, now, perfectly happy and content with her surroundings.  She joined her hen-friends and started chickening away.

And on my lap was a single, warm, perfect egg.dscf3772

Welcome home, ladies.

The Quantum Reality of Hazelnuts

Two weeks in, and our new life has settled into a kind of routine.  We have both returned to work (a necessary evil until we go completely off-grid/the zombie apocalypse happens/Trump gets in to the White House and presses ‘launch’ instead of ‘snooze’), but we are able to do this from home.  A run in the morning, breakfast in the garden, work ’til about three o’clock, then life proper begins.

dscf3479

At the moment this consists mainly of planning, as, although it is still very much summer here, the winter is not far away.  The bees will not thank us for installing them in frozen hives.  I shall try growing a few winter vegetables, but shan’t start in earnest until next spring.

I’ve begun digging the vegetable beds ready for next year.  Two down, around fifteen to go. It’s good exercise, and I’m certainly sleeping well at night.

We have decided that the chickens we’ve been planning on getting soon will live in the small brick ‘shed’ at the side of the field.  It’s a sturdy building, will be waterproof with a minimum of work, and, as the third little pig can attest, is wolf-proof (or at least should be fox-proof).  We have researched materials for building a chicken run, and have found a bloke down the road who makes salt-treated acacia fenceposts, which are a lot cheaper, and more eco-friendly, than the pesticide treated, or the plastic, posts in the shops.  There are several small ‘agri’ shops locally, boasting that they sell everything you need for your poultry (in truth this means a bewildering array of things to put feed and/or water in, and an inexplicable display of toy rubber chickens).  After a few false starts (I still can’t get used to shops closing on a Sunday, and a Saturday afternoon, and lunchtime), we found a place that sells the right kind of mesh, the only problem being that it seems to be exclusively for using with rabbits, pigeons, or roses.  Ah well, I’m sure the chickens won’t care.  (I shan’t tell them.)

There are wasps everywhere, nesting in the walls, in the chicken shed, in my hair.  I bought a can of Raid, but I just can’t bring myself to use it – it’s nasty stuff, and I don’t want it getting in the local food-chain or environment.  It’s pretty indiscriminate in its exterminating, and we need to look after pollinators, after all, globally and locally, and my crops next year shall be the better for it.  When the colder weather sets in (soon, too soon), the wasps will die off and I’ll seal up all the holes they’ve nested in this year, and hang some fake nests to dissuade them from returning too close to the house next year.  I don’t like the wasps, but I do like the bees and the beetles and the humming-bird moths that zip around our garden, busy being inscrutable.

We’ve pulled so much scrap metal out of the earth in the field (springs, nails, a bed frame) that I’m considering investing in a metal detector and a giant magnet (and possibly opening a scrapyard).

The weather has been very dry, and there’s nary a hint of any champignons in the forest.  I suppose I’ll just have to be patient.  The season has only just started, and I really ought not to be wishing too hard for rain; ML may have words to say about that.

ML’s brother lives a mile or so away, and has an orchard, and several hazel trees.  (It still counts as foraging if you don’t own the trees.)  We got a box of apples to turn into compote, and spent a happy hour gathering a huge bucketful of hazelnuts.dscf3388

Two whole evenings of peeling and shelling later, I’ve come to see that hazelnuts are a complicated nut, and a formidable opponent.  A lot of them have tiny holes in the shell, made by the emerging larvae of the hazelnut weevil (Curculio nucum), which should mean that there is no nut in there.  This, I learn, is not necessarily the case, and one must crack it open to make sure.  A lot of them make no sound when shaken, an indication that there is no nut.  Again, not true, and more cracking ensues.  In fact, hazelnuts are somewhat like Schrödinger’s Cat in that there both is and isn’t a nut until one opens the shell, collapsing the quantum state, and sending bits of shell all over the floor.  It is also true that there is a direct inverse correlation between the effort needed to get into a nut and the likelihood of there being anything edible inside.dscf3422

One giant bucket of hazelnuts yielded three small tubs of nuts (a good result), so I’ve been playing around with some recipes.  The best by far has been a hazelnut and blackberry brownie (our field edges are heavy with ripe, dark fruit at the moment), so this is the recipe I’ve decided to share.

Hazelnut & Blackberry Chocolate Brownies.

There is little one could confuse hazelnuts or blackberries with, but the obligatory caveat remains: don’t eat it if you don’t know what it is.

Blackberries Rubus fruticosus aggregate

The hedge round our farm is heaving with blackberries, although I have to fight the insects who seem a little furious that I am picking their breakfast.  I have discovered that if you attach a plastic jug to your belt, it is possible to pick (or eat) them at double the speed, as you have both hands free.

Hazelnuts Corylus avellana

Nuts are incredibly expensive to buy, so the chance to grab some wild hazelnuts should not be missed.  They are mature and ready to gather from the end of August onwards, but it’s best to get in early to beat the squirrels.  They will need removing from the outer sheath that they grow in, and then shelling.  I also tend to take the skins off by roasting at a medium temperature for 15 – 20 minutes until the skins are starting to darken and blister (they’ll burn easily, so keep an eye on them), then wrapping in a tea towel.  Allow them to cool for a few minutes, then rub the bundle between your hands for all you’re worth (I find muttering under my breath also helps).  The skins should flake off, and you can fish out the peeled nuts.  Not all the skins will come off, no matter how vigorous you are, but do what I do and ignore this.
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Ingredients makes 16 portions

90g good quality Dark Chocolate

250g Salted Butter

4 free range Eggs

200g granulated White Sugar

200g Demerara Sugar

70g Cocoa Powder

225g Plain Flour

120g Hazelnuts (skins removed)

200g Blackberries (washed and  allowed to dry)

Method

Preheat your oven to 170ºc.

Briefly blitz your roasted, skinless hazelnuts with a food blender (not too much or you’ll end up with nut butter – you just want them a bit chopped up).

Cut the butter into cubes, break up the chocolate, and melt them gently together in a metal or glass mixing bowl over a pan of hot water (don’t let the water touch the bottom of the bowl, nor allow the water to boil).

Once melted, add the white sugar and Demerara sugar, and mix thoroughly.

Add the beaten eggs and mix through.

Sieve the flour and cocoa together into your mixture, stirring all the time to ensure they’re completely combined – the mixture will start to get quite stiff here, so brace yourself.

Add the hazelnuts and mix.

Pour the mixture into a lined baking tray (20cm by 30cm or thereabouts will give you the right thickness), and spread out with a spatula making sure it’s right in the corners and edges.

Dot the blackberries evenly over the mixture, and push down into it a little with your finger.

Place in the oven and bake for around 20 minutes, or until a skewer pushed into the brownie comes out almost clean (you want them to be a bit gooey, and they’ll continue to cook once removed from the oven).

Allow to cool a little, then portion and either serve warm (with vanilla ice cream drizzled with blackberry coulis is a winner), or cool completely and store in an airtight container for up to five days.  The combination of the nuts, chocolate, and fruit is really special, and properly seasonal.dscf3513

Right, I’m off to dig another hole and avoid wasps.

A bientôt,

Kieran.