Fallback Pantry – Stinging Nettle Gnocchi with Garlic and Sage butter

Welcome to a new blog series here at the Country Skills Blog: in the ‘Fallback Pantry’ I plan to build a collection of recipes to help make the best of what’s in the kitchen and garden. At the time of writing, at least a quarter of the world’s population is under some sort of ‘lockdown’ restriction resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, making the sorts of recipes and techniques the blog has always focused on more valuable and relevant than ever.

Whatever our circumstances, a slow, thoughtful look at the resources at our disposal will hopefully yield options to help us eat well and make the best of what we have available.

With regular trips to the shops on hold for most of us, access to fresh greens can be a particular challenge. Thank goodness it’s stinging nettle season! Nettles are a great wild food, really nutritious and full of good things, widely found in gardens and other green spaces, and can be used very much like spinach. This recipe for home-made gnocchi really makes the best of them, I think – and they’re fun to make, so you can keep the kids entertained for several hours, too!


An important note about wild food – 

When picking wild plants to eat, it’s really important that you’re completely confident that you know what it is you’re picking. There are one or two seriously poisonous wild plants out there, and eating the wrong one could kill you. That said, stinging nettles are some of the easiest wild plants to identify – most British children will have mastered this skill by the age of five or six (though an adult friend of mine admitted to me recently that she wasn’t that confident she could!). Invest in a well-illustrated field guide and learn how to use it, take someone with you who knows what they’re doing, and if you’re ever in the slightest doubt, don’t take a risk! Remember that in many countries there are rules about what you can and can’t pick, pull, or harvest on land that doesn’t belong to you, so please stay on the right side of the law, and check with the landowner first to be sure.


Stinging Nettle Gnocchi with Garlic and Sage Butter

SERVES TWO

Ingredients:
100g stinging nettle tops
200g potatoes
One free-range egg
Around 100g Type-OO white flour (you can substitute strong white bread flour (better), or even plain flour will do in a pinch. Not self-raising, please!)
Semolina (not essential – you can use more of your flour for shaping but will sacrifice a bit of texture)

To Serve:
50g unsalted butter
3-4 sprigs of fresh sage
2 cloves of garlic
Parmesan cheese
Salt & pepper
Optional extra: dry-cured streaky bacon lardons

Serving alternative: any other sauce you fancy – all sorts of pesto-type sauces will work well here, so the only limit is your imagination.


Picked stinging nettlesPick nettles carefully – I wear washing up gloves – selecting the top two or three pairs of leaves only. Nettles are best early in the year, they can get rather tough and coarse flavoured later on. Actually, I tend to pull up a whole batch of nettles – I’m usually weeding – and then pick through them for the nettle tops afterwards. Remove the leaves from the stems, wash them thoroughly, and dry in a salad spinner (keeping your gloves on all the while!). 100g is roughly the amount you get in one of those prepared salad bags.


Start by boiling your potatoes, skins on, in a pan of briskly boiling water. 

Meanwhile, in a large frying pan with a well-fitting lid, put a splash of water and a little knob of butter, add all the nettle leaves, cover, and steam until the leaves start to soften and go a slightly darker shade of green. You can take your gloves off now, as the sting will have been disarmed. 

Wilted steamed nettles

Squeeze all the water out of your nettle leaves, by hand in a tea towel, or in a sieve. Then chop the steamed nettles up as well as possible. 

Keep an eye on your potatoes. When they’re cooked, drain them into a colander and once they’re cool enough to handle, you can peel their skins off really easily. 

Your chopped nettles should now be essentially cold. In a food processor (or pestle and mortar) combine the nettles with the egg and reduce to a reasonably fine pulp. 

Mash your potatoes, ideally using a potato ricer if you have one.

Combine the mashed potato with the egg & nettle paste, and mix well. 

Now, start adding the flour until it makes a soft but manageable dough. This will probably be about 100g but will vary depending on how much moisture was left in your nettles & potato, and how large your egg was.

NettleGnocchi_3

Once you have a workable dough (it will still be a bit sticky) dust your counter with semolina, take a handful of dough, and roll it into a sausage about ¾” in diameter. Then cut the sausage into individual gnocchi about ½” thick and place – spaced apart – on a semolina-dusted baking sheet or chopping board. Carry on until you have used up all the dough. 

Allow your gnocchi to rest for about 30 minutes and then press gently with the tines of a fork to get the traditional ridges, which help sauces cling to the gnocchi.

Gnocchi ready for cooking

To Serve:

Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a brisk rolling boil. 

Meanwhile, in a large frying pan, melt the butter. Chop the garlic finely, add to the butter, and cook very gently until golden.

While the garlic is cooking, add the gnocchi to the boiling water. They will sink initially, and are done when they float to the surface.

Finely slice the fresh sage leaves. When the gnocchi are cooked, add the sage leaves to the butter and garlic, stir quickly, and then transfer the gnocchi into the garlic and sage butter in the frying pan using a slotted spoon. 

Mix well to coat the gnocchi evenly with the herb butter, and serve, topped generously with freshly grated Parmesan and a good pinch of ground black pepper.

Variation – fry off some good smoked streaky bacon lardons until golden and crispy, before you start cooking the gnocchi, and add these to the gnocchi and sauce at the end.

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Seeds of Change – this year’s garden plan begins

Daffodils are hereWelcome to March, and spring is (or at least should be!) just around the corner. Last night, the first ‘Gardeners’ World’ of the year aired on BBC2: you might say that the official ‘starting gun’ of the gardening year has been fired.

We’ve had some exciting weather here in Cornwall to start the month, with heavy snow and freezing temperatures, so much so that we actually got to go skiing on our field! I can’t help but wonder if we’re the first people ever to ski in this little corner of the county? But if the weather outside can’t make up its mind, inside, we’re making plans for the new growing season, and our first seeds – tomatoes and chillies – are sown and have already germinated.

Skiing in Cornwall!

This year, I’ve had a rethink of the approach to my veg growing. Out go the F1 hybrids, as you can’t save seed from them and they leave me dependent on buying seed from a progressively smaller number of commercial seed producers, most of which are divisions of the sort of large multinational agrochemical companies I would rather not be supporting – even in a small way – with my hard-earned cash. In their place, heirloom varieties with a good track record of performance in garden growing situations, which hopefully I can save seed from for future years, improving the sustainability of our growing while reducing my annual seed bill.

It begs the question, of course, of why F1 hybrids are so popular? As I see it it’s a combination of things – not least, I’m afraid, a cynical preference for what are effectively ‘copy-protected’ seeds on the part of the seed sellers, as the offspring of F1 hybird varieties will not come ‘true to type’ and will often have very inferior production characteristics. But besides that, F1 plants are often that bit more vigorous (so called ‘hybrid vigour’) and are very consistent in their growth. Want ten (or a hundred, or a thousand) identical tomato plants, which will germinate together, grow at very much the same pace, and produce identical-looking and consistently sized tomatoes? If so, you need hybrid plants, as there will always be a bit of variability from plant to plant in open-pollinated heritage varieties.

Who cares about that? Commercial growers, mostly – while I can see that it might have some benefits to the produce showing fraternity (as the judging at vegetable shows is obsessed with the consistency of the vegetables presented – three or five near-identical peas will always beat bigger or better inconsistent specimens), it’s actually the case that most keen vegetable showers are keen to maintain and improve their own varieties, keeping seed from the best producing plants to improve their performance from year to year, something which is impossible for F1 plants.

Also out are dwarf peas and beans – I’m sure they have their use, but darned if I can think of it? I have a feeling that, again, they were developed to allow commercial, field-scale growing of beans without the need for supports, which can then be harvested by machine. But for the individual gardener, what a waste of growing space they represent, if you can instead grow them upwards on a great big wigwam and get a far bigger harvest from each individual plant. They’ve become so prevalent in the seed catalogues these past few years that I keep finding I’ve bought dwarf bean seed by accident. This year, no more – if it can climb, it will climb!

Soil blocks for growingA few years ago I started experimenting with soil blocks for seed starting. The mix I developed then – 4 parts peat free multipurpose compost mixed with 1 part vermiculite and 1 part topsoil (harvested from our generous numbers of field molehills!) continues to serve me well. We’re as strictly peat-free here as we can be – though it can be hard to source reliably peat-free plants.

The blocks work extremely well for mid-sized seeds that are single-planted, or for little seeds planted in small clumps. The 2 inch blocks that I make are obviously little use for anything bigger – beans, peas, and pumpkins / squashes still get started in 3 inch pots. But they’re a great way of reducing the amount of plastic we use in the garden, as they fully replace module trays – and my experience is that seeds started in these blocks transplant outside really well, with almost no ‘check’ to their growth when relocated – probably due to the minimal handling and root disturbance, combined with the fact they are already accustomed, thanks to the soil component of the mix, to the soil conditions here.

This year my chilli varieties are Santa Fe Grande, Ring of Fire and Maule’s Red Hot – sourced from US-based heirloom seed supplier Baker Creek Seeds. I’ve chosen these three specifically because they’re short-season varieties – one of the problems I’ve had with chillies in the past, growing outdoors in the tunnel, is that I’ve grown fantastic plants but there just hasn’t been enough time for the chillies to ripen before winter. With a bit of luck, these should fruit and crop earlier. Having decided on these, sown and germinated them, I was introduced last night on Twitter to a traditional African variety called the Fish chilli and I’m caught – it’s a beautiful variegated plant that produces variegated chillies! – I ordered some seed last night, so let’s hope it arrives quickly and is able to catch up for the missing growing weeks.

Tomato and chilli seeds

My tomatoes are Cuor Di Bue (Oxheart) and San Marzano, from Italian seed suppliers Franchi. The Cuor Di Bue packet, unusually, advised me to sow under a waxing crescent moon – which, as it happens, I did, however unintentionally! Joining them, from Baker Creek, Rutgers, A Grappoli D’Iverno (Italian winter grape), Brad’s Atomic Grape (a bizzare-looking, streaked, technicolour variety), True Black Brandywine and Black Vernisage. That makes seven varieties, which is three too many. Last year I only grew four (Oxheart and San Marzano, along with Golden Sunrise and my Grandma’s old favourite, Moneymaker) and decided firmly that it was a good plan and I’d be strict with myself in future and not over plant… What can I say, I’m a sucker for a seed catalogue!

I’ve had great, quick, strong germination this year – the tomatoes were almost all up on day 4, and the chillies broke the surface between days 10 and 14, really brisk germination and better than I’ve had in the past. I put this down in large part to my new gardening gadget purchase of the year: I’ve invested in an LED grow lamp for my germination set-up, to add to the two cheap heated propagators that have been my dependable friend for years now.

Strong growing seedlings

The cost of LED lamps has crashed recently, and my panel cost me less than £20, with very little electrical running cost, either – LED lights are very efficient. When previous grey springs have produced weak, leggy, lanky seedlings, this year’s plants seem strong, are growing vigorously, and are a lovely dark green colour. I’m particularly impressed with the effect on germination, which I hadn’t anticipated. Better still, my baby plants are no longer jammed into window sills all over the house, but instead can sit on a bench in the back hallway, where the temperature is more stable and they’re not so at risk from low overnight temperatures. It also feels less like I’ve transformed my entire home into a grow-house. At this rate, I’ll need to buy a second panel to cover more of my growing bench!

I’ll be back to keep you posted soon!

P.S. Those of you who are long-time followers of the blog will remember Dave the dog, our wonderful Rough Collie, who made regular cameo appearances here. I’m sorry to have to tell you that we lost Dave last year, he was thirteen, not a bad age, and unfortunately his legs eventually let him down. We miss him very much. 

But all clouds have a silver lining – and this is ours: she’s called Rosheen, has rampaged into our lives like a little tricolour whirlwind, and I’m sure you’ll all be very familiar with her antics soon!

Rosheen in snowstorm

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The Eurovision Drinking Game

It’s Eurovision time! Tomorrow, Saturday the 13th of May, from Kyiv (the Ukrainian capital city previously known as Kiev), it’s that time again!

I’m afraid I haven’t had time for a full review and new 2017 edition of the Eurovision Drinking Game Rules – but here they are, freshly time-travelled from last year, for those of you asking for them (I have actually had requests. No word of a lie!).

For 2017, have a Special Brexit Booby Prize – any reference to Brexit, everyone downs their glass.

Country Skills for Modern Life

It’s Eurovision time again! Where has the time gone? I had almost decided to skip the traditional Eurovision Drinking Game Rules post this year, but Hubby convinced me otherwise. So, somewhat belatedly – sorry folks, I’ve been incredibly busy the last few months – it’s that time again! The 61st Eurovision Song Contest takes place tonight – yes, TONIGHT – May 14th 2016, in Stockholm. <whispers> And this year, I’m going to miss it! The pathos! The tragedy! So I need all you guys to play extra hard on my behalf, OK?

Before we go on, I must pause to welcome our American friends, who for the first time ever can watch Eurovision live on tv! How exciting for you guys! You are, I suspect, going to find the whole thing rather mystifying – don’t worry, just keep drinking, and you’ll find the disorientating effect of the contest itself is…

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Unprocessed Lent – a food challenge

I’ve been thinking for some time about giving up processed foods – at least as an experiment. The time has never seemed right, but with Spring on the way, and Lent around the corner, it seemed a very Lenten sort of exercise in food discipline.

Hang on, what do you mean by processed food?

When I’ve discussed this idea with friends in the past, one question arises, sooner or later. ‘What do you consider to be processed? I mean, all cooked food is processed. Even flour is processed!’ And this is a very fair question. Everything apart from raw fruit, vegetables, meat and fish has been processed to some extent – arguably, even those have, unless you start with a live chicken or dig the potato from the ground yourself.

unprocessed-lent_7What I’ve tried to do is construct a logical ‘traffic light’ system that categorises foods purely by their degree of processing. I’m not making any moral judgement here, or asserting that one category of foods is healthier, better, or more environmentally sound than any other. This isn’t by any means a ‘clean eating’ thing (I think that’s a rather pernicious fad, and well past it’s sell-by date). It’s purely a list of categories sorted by – if you’ll forgive the expression – increasing ‘buggered-aboutness’.

There are definitely other criteria that we might want to be considering, as thoughtful, ethical consumers, and I refer to some of these in the annotations to the categories. They will colour the degree to which I’m inclined to be militant about the degree of processing. For instance, freezing, drying, and canning foods – all undoubtedly forms of processing – significantly increase the shelf life and preserve the nutritional value of foods, reduce food waste, and allow us access to fresh produce all year around without needing it to be flown half way around the globe. I would rather eat frozen peas or tinned tomatoes in February than fresh ones flown in from Kenya or produced in an artificially lit and heated glasshouse somewhere.

I’m not making an argument here that additives / preservatives / flavourings and so on are necessarily and axiomatically bad (though many undoubtedly are) – just that they are more likely to disappear invisibly into certain sorts of food than others, along with trans fats, invert sugar syrups, and artificial sweeteners, and I like to know what’s on my plate. For me, the most worrying thing about the 21st century food chain is that it introduces black boxes, and unknowns, into what we’re eating. When food is a commodity, we lose touch with our food and our farmers. As a planet, we have never been more divorced and isolated from the origins of our food. Making a point of starting from simple ingredients, and shopping, cooking, and eating thoughtfully, is a great place to start in reconnecting ourselves to the food on our plates.

Embarking on this challenge at this time of year means that I can’t cheat by drawing heavily on my veggie garden – we’re fully in the ‘hungry gap’ and there’s pretty much nothing growing just now. Where I will be benefiting from our usual lifestyle is that I have a good stock of home-made preserves – pickles, jams, chutneys and so on – which, assuming they were made from simple ingredients, I consider absolutely fair game.

unprocessed-lent_6

Why are you doing this?

As thoughtful consumers, there are plenty of important questions we might want to ask about the food we eat –

  • Where was it grown, and how was it stored and transported?
  • What resources – water, soil etc – and other inputs such as fuel, insecticides and herbicides were used in its production?
  • What are the consequences of that for the local and global environment?
  • Who produced it, and were those farmers able to work safely and be paid fairly?
  • Is it good for us, or will eating it have negative consequences for us as consumers?
  • Is it good value for money?

Different people will have different priorities. But whatever is important to you when it come to food, we are deluding ourselves if we think we can start to answer any of these important questions without first being able to answer a much more basic one. And that question is –

 “WHAT AM I EATING?”

When we eat processed and highly manufactured foods, we cannot possibly answer this question. And without that answer, any attempt to answer any of the others is meaningless. Stripping out processed foods from our diets is the first, essential step towards being able to make good decisions about food. If we don’t know what’s in the food on our plates, we can’t possibly make good choices about it – whatever ‘good’ means for us, at any given time in our lives.

It’s not Lent until the 1st of March, so why the preview? 

Well, I’m asking you to argue with me, I guess. Point out important food groups that I’ve missed, or places where you think my categories are not working or where I’ve introduced false-equivalences. I think it’s very unlikely that I’ve got this right first off. So, folks, what have I forgotten or got wrong?


Unprocessed Lent – food categories


Green
 – Fresh foods
unprocessed-lent_4Permitted – first choice if home-grown or locally produced and in season, otherwise substitution with yellow or amber items may be preferred.

  • Fresh whole fruit & vegetables
  • Fresh whole identifiable pieces of meat or fish
  • Fresh egg
  • Honey

Yellow – Single-ingredient foods simply processed for preservation purposes
Permitted – in my view these are no ‘worse’ and in some respects more desirable than fresh – they make foods available out of season without causing dramatic food miles, without significant deterioration in food value, and reduce food waste.

  • Frozen meat, fish and vegetables (otherwise as above)
  • Pasteurised whole milk
  • Whole grains (brown rice, pearl barley etc)
  • Un-roasted seeds and nuts
  • Dried pulses (peas, beans, lentils etc)
  • Cold-pressed (extra virgin) vegetable oils

Amber – these are still primarily single-ingredient foods, but have been processed more heavily.
Permitted – these foods may be starting to lose some food value compared to their fresh or unprocessed equivalents, or have had small additions of other ingredients. In exchange, they often store better than fresh, reducing food miles and food waste. I can’t see how we can do without them and there’s nothing here that would have bothered my grandmother.

  • unprocessed-lent_9Tinned vegetables in their own juice (eg tomatoes)
  • Dried fruit & vegetables
  • Roasted nuts and seeds
  • Lightly processed whole grains – white rice, rolled oats etc
  • Wholemeal flours
  • Fruit juices (fresh or pasteurised, but preservative free)
  • Skimmed & semi-skimmed milk (pasteurised)
  • Cream
  • Unsalted butter
  • Animal fats (lard, suet)
  • Natural unsweetened yoghurt
  • Maple syrup
  • Coffee beans roasted (& ground)
  • Loose-leaf tea
  • Unsweetened cocoa powder
  • Dried herbs and spices
  • Sea salt

unprocessed-lent_5Amber+ – similar to amber but more processed
Substitute – where possible

  • White flour
  • Refined sugars
  • Minced meats

Orange – foods created by traditional preservation techniques such as fermentation, curing and smoking. These are foods with amazing, complex flavours; the very stuff human food culture is made of.
With Care – source is everything here, so buy carefully, from small – ideally local – makers using traditional techniques (actual smoke, rather than liquid, for example), look for PDO products, consider alternatives & home-made. The industrially manufactured versions of these foods fall into the ‘black’ group.

  • unprocessed-lent_8Cheese
  • Cured and/or naturally smoked meats & fish (anchovies, bacon, smoked haddock)
  • Real ale & cider
  • Wine
  • Natural wine and cider vinegars
  • Lacto-fermented foods (kimchi, sauerkraut)

Red – multi-ingredient manufactured foods. These are foods that our grandparents would have recognised, and may have bought from outside the home (at least some of the time). They can often be a source of hidden ingredients (salts, sugars, fats & additives)
Avoid – unless home-made

  • Bread & bakery products
  • Fresh & dried pasta and noodles
  • Prepared ‘deli-style’ meats ready to eat
  • Sausages, burgers
  • Jams, pickles, chutneys
  • Tinned fruit and vegetables in brine or syrup
  • Tinned fish
  • Squashes, cordials, and flavoured syrups
  • Manufactured condiments (mustard, ketchup, sweet chilli sauce, mayonnaise etc)
  • Tea bags

Black – convenience, industrially manufactured foods. Our grandparents would have been mystified by many of these, or, while recognising them, would never have thought to buy them ‘off the shelf’. These sorts of foods are where all the hidden sugars, salts, and oils (not to mention invert sugar syrups, trans fats, artificial sweeteners, preservatives, flavour enhancers, and so on) sneak into our diets. Obviously, all of these foods made at home from lower category ingredients are fine!
Off-limits

  • unprocessed-lent_3Any ‘orange’ food produced industrially
  • Ready meals (including prepared sandwiches)
  • Convenience fruit & veg (bag salad, peeled / chopped fruit & veg)
  • Prepared pizza
  • ‘Chorleywood process’ bread
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Prepared sauces (pasta, curry etc) and raw foods coated in them
  • Tinned prepared foods (baked beans, pasta in sauce etc)
  • UHT or homogenised milks
  • Solvent-extracted vegetable oils
  • Margarine and similar non-dairy spreads
  • Non-dairy creamer
  • Sugar-free sweetners
  • unprocessed-lent_1Fruit juices containing preservatives
  • Prepared soups (fresh & tinned)
  • Instant noodles & soups
  • Sweet & savoury pies, scotch eggs
  • Crisps, biscuits, prepared snack foods
  • Sweets, chocolates, etc
  • Carbonated drinks
  • Spirits
  • Instant coffee
  • ‘Coffee pod’ coffee (Nespresso, Tassimo)
  • Stock cubes & gravy granules
  • Packet sauces & seasoning mixes
  • Take-aways

 

‘Tricky’ foods – additives and additions traditionally used in kitchens, and manufactured condiments in small quantities.

Additives / additions – our grandparents would have been familiar with all of these, even though, as kitchen ingredients, some have fallen out of common use. I plan to continue to use them when appropriate. Yes, some of them even have E-numbers.

  • Bicarbonate of soda
  • Baking powder
  • Dried yeast
  • Citric acid [E330]
  • Sodium nitrite [E250](saltpetre, used in tiny quantities in curing salt)
  • Sodium metabisulfite [E223] (Campden, used as a preservative and sterilising agent in brewing)

Condiments – while noting these are ‘red’ foods, they may be used occasionally, while looking for home-made alternatives.

  • Soy sauce
  • Mustard
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • Balsamic vinegar
  • Ketchup, brown sauce, sweet chilli sauce

It’s just under a week until we start. Looking forward to your comments!

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A Basket of Adorables – the chicks have hatched!

It’s surprising how long three weeks can seem, when you’re waiting for eggs to hatch! But by day 18, it definitely feels like you’re getting there. It’s time to go into ‘lockdown’, switch off any automatic turning devices, and increase the humidity in the incubator for hatching. Then, you just have to wait for the longest three days you can imagine.

As it happens, a couple of our chicks seemed in a bit of a hurry to get hatched, and we had our first external pip – the crack in the eggshell the chick makes to help it breathe before the real hatching effort takes place – on the morning of day 20.

eggscapade-3_1  eggscapade-3_2

You can imagine, I was checking the eggs every five or ten minutes! The excitement and anticipation was better than a childhood Christmas. The first cheeping sound from an as-yet unhatched egg was a magical noise. It suddenly seems plausible that, inside an egg which three weeks ago would have made a perfectly good omelette, there might be a tiny, perfect little creature. The hatching process from external pip to the chick finally emerging from the egg will commonly take 12-18 hours. An eternity! But by that evening, the very first chick – a Light Sussex – had hatched. We were on our way!

eggscapade-3_3

It is advised to leave newly hatched chicks in the incubator – which after all is perfectly warm and comfortable for them – for around 24 hours after hatching. This allows them to get all nice and dry and fluffed up, from their rather bedraggled initial state. They don’t immediately require food and water, as their internal egg sac continues to supply their needs for around 48 hours after hatching. The less often you open the incubator during hatching, the higher the humidity stays, which is important because if the egg membranes dry out during hatching they become stiff and crispy and can effectively ‘shrink wrap’ the chick and prevent it hatching, a tragic fate so late in the process.

Somehow, despite the excitement and anticipation, we managed to get some sleep that night. By the next morning, we had a second egg hatched, and a third making real progress. Day 21 – ‘hatch day’ – had begun.

We had 21 eggs in the incubator at ‘lockdown’, from the 24 we had started incubating – three eggs appeared infertile when we candled them at 10 days, so these were removed at that stage. By mid-morning on day 21, things had really got going.

eggscapade-3_4  eggscapade-3_5

At various points I was rather confused about how many chicks were hatched or actively hatching, and eventually the incubator became so full of chicks that it was impossible to keep track. A quick dive into the incubator to remove the first batch of fluffy chicks made a bit of space – and revealed a problem. One egg, which I had noticed pipping on the evening of day 20, over 18 hours ago, wasn’t making progress. I could see the chick moving inside, but there was only quite a small hole rather than the progressive line of chipped open shell that develops during an active hatch, and the membranes I could see appeared worryingly dry.

I had a decision to make. Most of the advice on hatching chicks will tell you not to intervene, and for good reason. Fiddling about with the incubator reduces the humidity and will increase the risk of hatching problems. Not only that, but hatching chicks are very fragile little creatures and the risk of causing catastrophic injury by interference is significant. Assisting a chick which isn’t quite ready to hatch is likely to lead to potentially life threatening bleeding from an umbilicus and from the blood vessels lining the shell which have not properly shut down yet, something that happens in the final hours before hatching. These are all extremely good reasons to leave well alone.

Another reason is also often given – that chicks which are not hatching correctly are probably ‘wrong’ in some way, and are as a result better left to die. This reason, I’m not buying. Animals of all sort can struggle to be born normally for all sorts of reasons, but many of those reasons are just plain bad luck – they find themselves positioned wrong (in the case of chicks, they fail to wriggle themselves around in the egg so that they can get their beak into the air cell, and start to breathe before hatching), or get tangled up somehow (with littler-mates, cords, or membranes). After speedy but considered soul-searching, I decided that this little chick needed my help, and that I was willing to go against the advice and try to assist the hatching.

Very gently, using my fingertips and a cotton bud damped with warm water, I enlarged the little hole the chick had made, until the cap – the bit of the shell overlying the air cell – was completely removed. I could see the little chick – a russety-coloured Rhode Island Red – tangled up tight in a rigid dried egg membrane, which had stuck to its downy feathers. Let me tell you, I was terrified of hurting the poor little thing and even tearing its skin as I eased the membrane away with my wet cotton bud. But very slowly, I was able to tease the membrane away without any damage to the little chick, releasing it from its entanglement. Having seen what was going on inside the egg, I have no regrets about helping – I can’t see how the chick could have got out on its own, it was well and truly welded to the membranes, had no way to rotate around to remove enough egg shell to complete its hatching, and would rapidly have been running out of the energy it needed to keep struggling. But I can also see quite how delicate, and risky, the process could be – and I might have been wrong, and taken those risks unnecessarily.

The rescued chick was popped back into the incubator. Meanwhile, we transferred the first batch of hatched chicks to the brooder cage which was set up in the corner of the living room.

eggscapade-3_9

The brooder set-up is a bit ‘make do and mend’. I had bought a second hand Brinsea Eco-glow ‘electric hen’ style brooder, rather than use the more traditional hanging heat lamp, both because it has far lower energy consumption than a lamp, and because it seemed to me a more natural thing from a behavioural point of view – chicks would likely feel more comfortable and reassured by a dark warm place to snuggle under than a mysterious warm light in the sky. The brooder cage is Dave the dog’s old puppy crate, wrapped around with cling film to prevent drafts at chick height, with cardboard baffles around the edges, and bedded with newspaper and a thin layer of clean dust extracted wood shavings.

Hatching continued at great pace. By bedtime on day 21, we had 15 hatched, with six eggs still in the incubator showing no sign of activity. While I was delighted by the little fluffy bundles, if I’m honest I was feeling a little disappointed with these numbers – which would have given us a total hatch percentage only just over 62% from the starting 24.

eggscapade-3_7  eggscapade-3_6

Patience is a virtue, and I was planning to give the eggs at least 48hrs after ‘due’ just to make sure no one was running behind. The following day (day 22) two more eggs had pipped, one hatched but the second failed to progress. We noticed that the water reservoir had run dry, which made me worry that perhaps it was another ‘shrink wrapped’ chick. After watching for a while, it looked like we were getting nowhere. I decided to intervene again, and carefully peeled this final chick out of the shell. The membranes were a bit dry but not quite as crispy as the little Rhode Island. This little chick had a visible umbilicus which seems to be some sort of a congenital abnormality. Maybe it isn’t quite ‘right’, but we’re giving it the benefit of the doubt for now.

With a total of 17 eggs hatched, there was no further activity in the final four, despite leaving them another couple of days. I candled the remaining eggs and three had clearly stopped developing at some point in the last week or so. The final one seemed to be absolutely packed full of chick, as you’d expect from a fully developed egg. But there was no sign of a little beak pushing into the air sac, and no sound from within the egg. Perhaps this was the unlucky one – positioned wrong and not able to get a breath to start the hatching process.

Our final statistics, by breed, for those of you who are curious about the nerdy details –

Our eggs originated from two batches, a dozen Buff Orpington eggs from one source, and dozen mixed breeds (RIR, Light Sussex, Vorwerk and Barnevelder) from a second. Both sets of eggs arrived in the post, he mixed breed eggs came about four days earlier than the Orpingtons and had probably been stored longer.

Breed – Initial (Removed – infertile) Hatched – %

  • Buff Orpington – 12 (0) 10 – 83%
  • RIR – 3 (1) 1 – 33%
  • Light Sussex – 4 (1) 3 – 75%
  • Vorwerk – 4 (1) 2 – 50%
  • Barnevelder – 1 (0) 1 – 100%
  • Mixed breed overall – 12 (3) 7 – 58%

Considering both batches of eggs went through the post, the significant difference between the two batches goes to show the value of obtaining the freshest possible eggs for incubation.

Two days after hatching, the little treasures look like this.

eggscapade-3_10

And they’re developing at a remarkable pace. After three days it’s quit clear you couldn’t cram them back into the egg, no matter how hard you tried. Wing feathers started to become visible within a couple of days, and the chicken behaviours are all coming along, eating and drinking, pecking and scratching, preening, dust bathing, and even bickering for pecking order.

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Ten days after hatching, all 17 chicks continue to do well, including the weaker little final chick. Fingers crossed!

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Don’t Count your Chickens – incubation, day 10

On January 5th, I put my first ever batch of eggs into my incubator, after each one was weighed, numbered, and recorded. The instructions I’ve read all recommended candling after 7 days to check for evidence of development, which would have been this past Thursday.

Unfortunately, at short notice, I had to go away for a few days on Wednesday morning. Not knowing quite when I’d be back, I couldn’t resist sneaking a quick peek with the candling lamp on Tuesday night, at only 5 days incubation. I quickly picked four eggs at random from the 24 in the incubator and was delighted to see clear evidence of developing blood vessels in every one of them. Now, four was a small sample of the total, but it was a reassuring result!

I asked my husband to check all the eggs on Thursday, and let me know his findings. He emailed me his list, with ‘question marks’ over six eggs and definitely nothing in two. For a batch of eggs that had been through the post, these weren’t too bad, amounting to a failure to develop of 1/3rd of the total batch. But it was his first time candling and he wasn’t that confident, so we decided to leave all the eggs in the incubator, and I would double-check when I got back, whenever that happened to be.

A word or two about egg candling – this is a really simple technique which quite literally allows you to see inside the egg, by shining a very bright light through the shell while sitting in a darkened room. I’m afraid I haven’t got any photos from my candling session – I was far more concerned about getting it done carefully and quickly than about documenting the process – but there are plenty of good guides online, and any book about the hatching process should also be a good resource.

Fertile egg during candling [Creative Commons licensed image by Graibeard]

This photo gives an idea of what the developing embryo looks like within the egg at around 7 days. You can see the developing blood vessels inside the shell, the dark shadow of the embryo, and the bright air cell at the pointy end of the egg. Unfertilised eggs just look bright, with a bit of a shadow from the yolk. Darker-shelled eggs are harder to see detail in.

When I got home yesterday, I couldn’t wait to double check the eggs. To my delight, while I agreed with Hubby on his two ‘definite’ infertile eggs, only one of his six ‘question mark’ eggs appeared not to be developing. That means that, as of yesterday, I have 21 of my original 24 eggs still in play.

While I had them out for candling, I also weighed all my eggs. Tracking the weight loss of the eggs through incubation is really important because eggs need to loose around 14% of their total weight by evaporation during incubation. That way, the air cell is the right size at hatching so the chick is able to breathe without drowning during the hatch process. If the incubator has been too humid, there will be too little evaporation; if it has been too dry, then too much moisture can be lost, resulting in weak, undersized chicks. There are reported ‘target’ humidity ranges for hatching eggs of different species, but only really expensive incubators directly control and monitor humidity. What’s more, cheap electronic humidity meters (hygrometers – not the same thing as a hydrometer, which measures the density of a fluid) are notoriously unreliable, particularly outside normal room temperature ranges.

Egg recording spreadsheet 2

In most cases, then, we’re making a best guess at the humidity levels in the incubator. My incubator has two water channels in the base, and the instructions recommend filling one of them during incubation. (The second is filled later, at the 18 day mark, when we want to ramp the humidity of the incubator right up to help with hatching.) But the resulting humidity in the incubator has as much to do with the ambient, climatic temperature and humidity levels. The colder the outside air, the less moisture it can hold within it, resulting in lower humidity levels inside the warmed incubator. So how do we know we’re getting it right? Well, if we can compare the weight loss from the eggs with the target of 14% over 21days, by graphing, we can get a good idea if we’re in the right area.

This is what my weight loss data looks like.

Egg hatching weight loss graph

The long lines are the upper, middle, and lower bound of my expected weighs and weight losses. The shorter lines each represent one of the eggs in my incubator. As you can see, they aren’t quite all neatly parallel but all of them are within a reasonable variation of the target weight loss. One or two are more steeply angled down than the target. When I looked to see which eggs these were, they tended to be the ones located more centrally in the incubator. This makes a certain sense, as my incubator is a ‘forced air’ style incubator with a fan which circulates the air around. The fan is in the centre of the incubator lid, so while all the eggs in the incubator should be broadly at the same temperature, the ones in the centre are getting more of a draft, and that air movement will increase the evaporation from those eggs.

Bearing this in mind, I have ‘reshuffled’ the eggs in the incubator today to bring the eggs from the corners and sides in to the middle, and from the middle out to the edges, making sure to keep them pointy-end down at all times. This should hopefully equalise the water loss from the eggs during the second half of the incubation process.

At 10 days, now, we’re approximately half way there. A lot of things can still go wrong, and I’m certainly not counting my chickens just yet! But the excitement is definitely increasing…

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Ready, Set, Go – incubation has begun!

Last Thursday, I set 24 eggs in my incubator. We ran the incubator for 24 hours to check and stabilise the temperature before-hand. I think we have it all set up right – fingers crossed!

Eggs loaded into incubator

The eggs are made up of 12 Buff Orpingtons (I’ve been wanting a little breeding group of Orps for some time), sent to me by a very kind friend, along with a little ‘lucky dip’ selection including Rhode Island Reds, Light Sussex, and Vorwerk. All of the eggs have been through the post, which is reported to reduce their hatchability. So I have no idea at all how many little fluffy chicks we might actually be expecting at the end of the process!

Before being put into the incubator, I numbered and weighed each egg and dipped them in warm egg disinfectant, which is meant to reduce the risk of contamination causing infection which would kill the developing embryo. I have a spreadsheet (which will come as no surprise to those of you who know me) where I will be tracking the weight loss of the eggs and recording fertility and candling outcomes.

Egg recording spreadsheet

Our first idea how things are going comes after 7 days, when we should be able to candle the eggs – shining a bright light inside them to see if anything inside is casting shadows –  to find out which eggs are fertile and developing, and which are not.

So, here goes. Wish us luck!

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Beginnings and Endings – hopes of new life for a new year

The time around New Year is always a rather liminal time. A time of real and imaginary ends and beginnings. This year has been a particularly difficult one for me – and for a lot of people, I think. So, for the end of the year, I thought I would tell you a story. It’s a perfectly true story, as far as stories remembered from deep childhood ever can be. It’s a small story, really. But like many long-remembered stories, you can still hear its echoes, its resonance, if you listen.

In this story, I’m a small girl of six or seven. We’re on our first long-haul overseas holiday. It’s the first time we have left Europe, and we’re visiting California. We’ve ridden the teacups and the runaway mining cart at Disney World, and acquired a family portrait in pioneer dress, leaning on the rail of a wagon, which is still in the family album today. We’ve petted the bottle nose dolphins at Sea World, and marvelled at the flying Orca (this is long before Free Willy, and a more sensitive approach to these things). And on this particular day, we are at the San Diego Zoo.

Now, San Diego Zoo is an amazing place. Even in the mid 1980s, when our story takes place, it was a bastion of conservation zoology, blazing the trail with wide open, naturalistic, enriched enclosures. But I can’t honestly tell you that I remember any of that. Actually, that’s not quite true – I do remember the goat in the petting farm who stole a billfold from the back pocket of a man’s trousers, and then ate it. But apart from the goat with a taste for greenbacks, what I remember is the chicks.

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You see, there was an exhibit of hatching eggs. In my memory, it’s been set up in the middle of some sort of amphitheatre get-up, round or hexagonal maybe, with benching around, and a roof over. But who knows. Anyway, in the middle, is a large tray of hatching eggs in a big glass box. Fifty or sixty eggs. A few little chicks are standing around looking a bit dazed, some all fluffed up, some still rather damp and dishevelled. But this one egg, just here, is hatching. By family story, I refused to be moved for the more than two hours it took the chick to finally emerge from its shell. In my recollection, there’s no sense of time; just complete fascination and rapture.

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I can trace to that moment my focused fascination with animals, with biology and zoology. It must go some way to explain my later decision to study veterinary medicine, and so account, at least in part, for my current life as a working veterinary surgeon, and developing smallholder.

Earlier this year, I was thinking about the chicks for some reason – I can’t remember why, now – and I was struck with a thought that had somehow eluded me for the best part of three decades. San Diego Zoo, I realised, is not noted for its poultry collection. It is, however, recognised as holding one of the finest reptile collections anywhere in the world.

Now, I’m not overly sentimental, by and large. But the realisation, years later, that my little chick probably became snake food shook me. Looking back now, it was a very 2016 moment.

*

Why am I telling you this? Well, I’ve been thinking about chicks quite a lot, the past few days. And this is why.

img_3107On Christmas morning, I unwrapped an incubator. It’s a Brinsea Octagon Eco 20, with an automatic turning cradle, and I can think of few occasions, going right back to six year old me – perhaps with the exception of the year I received the My Little Pony Castle – when I have been so excited to unwrap a gift and get to work on the contents.

So, watch this space! I plan to load the incubator with a “pick ‘n mix” selection of fertile eggs next week, to hatch into a clutch of little fluffy chicks – with a lot of good luck, given it’s my first ever hatching attempt – around the end of January.

After what has been a pretty dreadful 2016, I could not be more ‘eggcited’ for 2017!

P.S. On the subject of bird ‘flu (H5N8 avian influenza), and the current restrictions in the UK – because someone is bound to ask – we’re lucky to have outbuildings here where we can keep our birds completely indoors if that becomes necessary. So while I’m hoping that restrictions will have been lifted by the time our little chickies are ready to go outdoors – once they have feathers rather than fluff, around the start of March – we’re in a really good position hopefully to take care of them while this awkwardness continues.

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Like a Rocket – summer glut-busting: wild rocket pesto

Summer days are here at last, and for those of us who grow our own fruit and vegetables, that means the summer gluts are starting, too. Wild rocket is really very easy to grow, which is great, as the sad little plastic salad bags at the supermarket cost a small fortune! Even if you only have space for a window box or a pot on a sunny doorstep, you’re quite likely to be able to grow more of this really punchy, peppery salad leaf than you can bear to eat in salad. Even better, wild rocket is perennial, which means that you only have to plant it once and it will come back, year after year. In the garden of our last house, we ended up with a big clump of wild rocket growing at the edge of the lawn which served us for many years.

A few weeks ago, I transplanted three rather sad looking overwintered plants from an exhausted grow-bag into one of the raised beds in my poly-tunnel. And look what happened!

Wild rocket

There you go, straight away – more rocket than I can possibly eat! And then, I thought – I wonder if I can make pesto with this stuff? It’s punchy, peppery, and in many respects quite like basil, so I was hopeful. A quick search around the internet confirmed my suspicions that it should be possible, so I got picking.

For my batch of pesto, which filled an average-sized jam jar with a little to spare, I used –

  • 120g of freshly picked wild rocket leaves. To give you a rough idea of how much rocket that is, the supermarket packs of rocket leaves are usually between 50g and 70g.
  • Washed & dried rocket3 large cloves of garlic
  • 50g pine kernels, lightly toasted in a dry frying pan
  • 50g good quality parmesan cheese
  • Plenty of good extra virgin olive oil
  • One lemon
  • A pinch of salt

Wash your rocket, removing tougher stems and any flower stalks, and dry it in a salad spinner (or give it a really good shake in a colander with a plate over the top).

You can make this pesto in a pestle and mortar (in fact, it’s my favourite way of making small batches of basil pesto, as you keep closer control over the texture and you’re much less likely to over process) but given the quantities I used my food processor for this batch. First, blitz the garlic cloves with a pinch of salt until they’re finely chopped down. Then add the parmesan, and reduce to crumbs, before adding the pine kernels. Aim to retain some texture in the pine kernels, you’re not trying to purée them!

Once that’s done, add the rocket, a handful at a time, adding some olive oil as you go if the mix gets a bit dry. Aim to retain a little texture in the mix.

Rocket pesto after processing

Once it looks like this, squeeze in the juice of half a lemon, mix well, and add oil until it reaches the texture you prefer. Taste – you’ll find it punchy, peppery, and pungent – and add more lemon juice if you feel it’s needed. You won’t need to add pepper – trust me on this! – but you may want to add a little more salt at this stage, too.

The pesto will store for a few days in a screw-top jar in the refrigerator. Keep the surface covered with a layer of olive oil to prevent oxidation. If you want to store your pesto for longer, you can freeze it in an ice cube tray, and take it out in single-serve portions. How clever is that?

Pesto in jar

Use your rocket pesto any way you would use the basil kind. It’s wonderful stirred through pasta or, particularly, gnocchi. Add a few little dabs to the top of your pizza before baking. Or spread it on burger buns as a punchy, peppery relish.

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The Eurovision Drinking Game – 2016 Edition

It’s Eurovision time again! Where has the time gone? I had almost decided to skip the traditional Eurovision Drinking Game Rules post this year, but Hubby convinced me otherwise. So, somewhat belatedly – sorry folks, I’ve been incredibly busy the last few months – it’s that time again! The 61st Eurovision Song Contest takes place tonight – yes, TONIGHT – May 14th 2016, in Stockholm. <whispers> And this year, I’m going to miss it! The pathos! The tragedy! So I need all you guys to play extra hard on my behalf, OK?

Before we go on, I must pause to welcome our American friends, who for the first time ever can watch Eurovision live on tv! How exciting for you guys! You are, I suspect, going to find the whole thing rather mystifying – don’t worry, just keep drinking, and you’ll find the disorientating effect of the contest itself is rapidly replaced with a soft and comforting dizziness. The Eurovision Song Contest has a long and distinguished history, in much of Western Europe, both as an iconic event in the pantheon of LBGT pride, and as an excuse for an almighty pissed-up party. Inexplicably, some of our Eastern neighbours meanwhile insist on taking the whole thing seriously. Anyway, welcome y’all, join in, and enjoy!

Flags!Like so many good and worthwhile ideas, these rules started life at a university party, well over a decade ago. They have been carefully curated and updated over the years, and play-tested by a number of kind ‘volunteers’, some of whom even recalled enough the next morning to provide helpful feedback and suggestions! So, without further ado, I present to you – The Countryskillsblog.com Eurovision Drinking Game, 2016 Edition.

How to play –

This is a forfeit game. A variety of features of songs and the performances have been selected, and their appearance triggers a drinking forfeit. This is usually (but not always!) ‘take a swig’.

Shot glassesIt’s a really good idea to divide up the countries and songs between your players. Extensive play-testing experience suggests that human beings with normal sized livers (or those who wish to retain them, in any case!) should probably not attempt to play for more than three or four songs each.

You might do this by ballot, draw straws before each song, or adopt some other creative or arcane method of your choice (rolling dice, top trumps, whatever you fancy frankly!). Smaller parties may chose not to allocate a player to every songs. All of the players playing for every song is likely to result in unpleasant consequences, and cannot be recommended!

The Competition –

Begin any song that you are playing with a fully-charged glass.

Certain features of the song and performance trigger a forfeit. These features can appear more than once in a performance (and sadly, often do!) and ‘score’ each time they appear – so the now legendary ‘Bucks Fizz’ skirt removal would represent a single costume change, because it happened in one go, but a song that repeatedly swaps languages or makes major-to-minor-and-back-again key transitions triggers a forfeit on each switch.

Take a drink for each instance of the following:

The song –

  • OrchestraChange of language
  • Change of key (take an extra swig if the key change is so egregiously telegraphed you can see it coming for miles)
  • Change of tempo
  • Wordless lyrics (da dum da, mana mana mana, lalalala)

The performer, costume and performance –

Folk Dancers

  • Folk costume
  • Folk instrument
  • Folk dance
  • Weapons (with an extra-big swig if they’re ‘folk’ weapons – axes, pitchforks, flaming torches etc)
  • Uniforms – military & civil (including costume references to same – epaulettes, insignia, military-looking hats and suchlike).
  • ‘Game of Thrones’ costume or set references.
  • Office wear, three-piece-suits
  • Dubious uniformsFlags, banners, national symbols
  • Pyrotechnics (take an extra big swig for the falling-curtain-of-fire effect)
  • Smoke, fog, wind machine
  • Costume change
  • Bare feet, bare torsos
  • Underwear as outerwear, ‘nude’ body-suits
  • Spandex, lurex, sequins
  • Leather, rubber, PVC, bondage wear
  • LEDs or other lighting incorporated into costumes
  • Fur, feathers, wings
  • Feather BoaTrapeze or wire-work
  • Magic, circus themes
  • Booby Prize – ‘Uncanny Valley’ The appearance of an animated human or human-like avatar triggers the booby prize. Players should immediately down the remains of their drink.

The half-time performance (or the ‘Riverdance’ slot) –

The host country puts on a performance on during the ‘voting gap’. Everyone plays for this segment, using the same forfeit list as for the songs.

Bottles and bottles

Voting –

The voting round should be considered advanced play, and may be unsuitable for novice players or those with a delicate constitution. These rules are intentionally kept simple. They need to be, by this time in the evening!

  • Before each set of results are announced, everyone guesses where the 12 points are going. If anyone gets this right, those who got it wrong take a swig.
  • ‘Booby Prize’ – Everyone downs their drink if the presenter gets the country they’re speaking to wrong, calls the national representative by the wrong name, or gets their pronunciation corrected by the national representative.

Well, that’s all, folks! Have fun at your Eurovision parties, and if you do decide to try these rules, please do comment here or tweet me @CountrySkills. Do please share widely – everyone needs a bit of Eurovision fun in their lives!

And remember, please drink responsibly (*ahem!*), and definitely don’t drink and drive, attempt DIY, deep fat frying, change important passwords or operate heavy machinery. Finally, your hangover is your problem, not mine, so don’t come crying to me in the morning!

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