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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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And Now For Something Completely Different – are you an aspiring smallholder?

One of the nice things about writing a blog is that people email you out of the blue from time to time to say nice things about it. Often they want to sell you something, of course, but isn’t that the Internet all over? Anyway, today I got a message from Eve White, who works in programme development at the BBC; as well as being ever so nice about the blog, she wondered if I knew anyone who might be able to help them out finding a family to participate in a programme they’re making.

Now, this isn’t really the kind of blog where I’d normally post this sort of request, but I just have sneaky suspicion that this might suit some of my lovely readers here down to the ground – so, if you’re considering taking on a smallholding or wanting to take bigger steps towards a self sufficient lifestyle, listen up, this may be for you!

Copied below is Eve’s email to me and her contact details. Please contact her directly, if you’re interested in participating, as she won’t be checking comments here!


My name is Eve and I work in the programme development team in BBC Bristol. We’re looking at a new daytime programme idea featuring Paul Martin (antiques expert who presents the BBC1 show ‘Flog It!’ – but also happens to be a smallholder) whereby families thinking of leaving behind the urban life for a new one in the countryside try their hand at smallholding challenges at Paul’s home.

It might be that you and your family have always dreamt of giving everything up to move to your own piece of land in the countryside, or that you’ve climbed the career ladder for long enough and want the chance to become self-sufficient, or that being a smallholder has always been pushed aside in the face of the reality of your day-to-day lives.

We are looking to film what’s known as a taster tape – a short preview film to give a flavour of how the programme might look and feel – with Paul and a family who are considering this change of lifestyle in around two weeks time. This isn’t for broadcast, but will help show our commissioners the potential for a brand new series for BBC1. This will involve a bit of filming with you to find out more about why you’d like to leave the rat race and move to the country, and some hands-on practical smallholding challenges at Paul’s farm in the south west.

We’re looking to film in about two weeks time on the 21st September, so you’d need to be available then.

If you think you and your family might be up for the challenge, or have somebody in mind who you would recommend, please get in touch via my email address eve.white@bbc.co.uk and I will respond as promptly as possible.


So, if that sounds like you, and you fancy the experience of TV without the stress of actually ending up on the box, why not drop Eve a line?

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New Year, New Home – our plans for the garden

Crikey, we’re half way through January 2015 already – how did that happen?? It seems like only last week we arrived here, but it’s been over six months now since we moved, in the height of summer.

The house

It’s going to be an exciting year for us, and hopefully plenty of opportunities to showcase new skills and techniques here on the blog, too! Those of you who read here regularly will know that we were forced by the HS2 rail project to move from our lovely little cottage near Banbury. We decided to bite the bullet and make a big move – the move to the South West that Hubby and I had always told ourselves we would make ‘one day’, when the right opportunity arose. I have to say I’d always suspected the ‘right time’ might well have ended up being be 20 or 30 years from now, when we were thinking about retirement, so while it was a scary move, and stretches us financially, I’m delighted that we find ourselves here in Cornwall now, while we’re still young (well, relatively, hah!) and fit and able to work and build a life here and contribute to our local community. Even if it means we’re skint working-age folk rather than comparatively well-off retirees!

After an initial 6 months doing temporary contract work to keep our heads above water, I’ve started a new, permanent job for the new year, closer to home and with saner hours (occasional days off!) which will hopefully allow me to draw breath from time to time and spend a little more time making, doing and writing too!

So, as today is one such day, I thought I’d share a little about the projects we have coming up here at our beautiful new home in the course of the next year.

In the garden –

We’re amazingly lucky to have five acres of land with our new home, and in due course we hope to slowly build it up into a productive smallholding. For the time being we’re renting the pasture land to our neighbours for their sheep to graze, while we concentrate our time, effort, and resources around the house and gardens.

Dave dog on the paddock

Yes – gardens. I never thought I’d have gardens in the plural (well, if you ignore a scrap of front driveway!) but we have two, three if you count the old sheep fold where we’ve planted the orchard trees that we dug up and brought with us from our last home.

South gardenTo the south of the house, sloping away gently, we have a triangular garden with Cornish hedges on both sides which is going to be our ‘pretty’ garden. It has gorgeous views over Bodmin Moor and will be perfect for relaxing in on summer evenings if we ever get any time to rest!

The fish pondHubby has dug a pond here for our fish, who are settling in nicely, but otherwise this patch of land is likely to have to take a back seat for a while while we concentrate on more productive projects! With a bit of time and attention (ten years or so should do it!) I have high hopes for it being an even more beautiful place to be.

To the west side, we have an almost square, level garden with the house to one side and Cornish hedges to the other three sides, which essentially makes it a walled garden and the most protected growing space we have. This is an important factor as we’re nearly 900ft up on the edge of Bodmin Moor, and the winter weather and winds here can be a bit ferocious!

First raised bedsThis is going to be our kitchen garden, and as you can see the work has already started, the hens are settling in nicely, and the first three raised beds are planted with winter veggies.

We’re going to build a shed and a small seedling greenhouse here and add some more growing space as we go along. The soil is quite stony as we’re on granite and slate bedrock, but seems good and fertile so with a bit of luck and lots of patience and stone picking this should make for a lovely productive working garden. As long as we can keep the rabbits & mice at bay…

We plan to build a polytunnel outside the gardens to the side of the pasture paddock, to allow us to grow more tender plants like chillies, tomatoes, peppers and maybe even melons, and take even greater advantage of Cornwall’s lovely mild climate (well, by and large – it’s blummin’ chilly today!) and long growing season. The hens might even enjoy hanging out there in future winters, in the dry and out of the wind.

The hens nicely settledThe hens are doing OK now, after a disaster back in November when a stoat broke into the run and slaughtered three of the five girls we’d brought with us from Banbury. Of course, it killed my favourite, Midge, and I was completely heartbroken over the whole thing. We managed to find four new pullets to make up the numbers and all of them seem to be getting on really well now.

We’ve had far less trouble than on any previous hen introductions so we’re obviously getting the hang of this process. The new girls all have their own characters and temperaments and seem very chilled out around Dave dog, which is lovely.

There’s so much to do, but it’s so exciting! I’ve got some chillies in the heated window sill propagator (and rapidly realising I need a much bigger one!) and the first have germinated during the past few days. It won’t be long before every window sill in the house is full to bursting with seedlings – at least they’re nice thick walls, over two feet of solid granite for the most part, so I have plenty of ledge space.

Green shoots!

We missed out completely on last year’s growing season, which was torture. So even though we really should probably be focusing our time and efforts in other places, I refuse to let another whole growing year go by the wayside – it’s so very exciting to have seeds in compost again and to be seeing the very first green shoots of what should hopefully be our first great productive Cornish growing season!

Recycled cold frameIt’s a very conscious decision to concentrate our time and expenditure on the productive aspects of the gardens first – after all, the kitchen garden will go some way to feeding us. Landscaping and decorative planting, no matter how attractive, doesn’t help keep the larder stocked or reduce our food bills. We’re very much doing this on a budget, too – our rather lovely pair of cold frames are made from the glass out of the shower cubicle we had to replace when we got here.

Over the next few blog posts I’ll share with you some of our plans for the house – especially the kitchen – and for our outbuildings. Buckle up – it’s going to be a busy year!

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Baked Eggs with Smoked Haddock and Grain Mustard, from ‘Eggs’ by Michel Roux – Cooking the Books, week 6

Our hens have got laying early and enthusiastically this year, despite the quite horrible weather, and we have more eggs than we know what to do with. I bought this little book fairly soon after we got our girls, anticipating the inevitable hen-keeper’s egg glut, but despite that it’s seen very little use.

This is a lovely little recipe for baked eggs (‘en cocotte’ as I’m sure M. Roux would actually have it), which makes a gorgeous starter or, serving two per person, a really decent supper dish. Now, I have to admit I have made this recipe, and variations on it, a couple of times already, so my version does vary a little bit from the original.

To make four (serves four for a starter, or two for a main course) –

  • Baked eggs - ingredientsSmall fillet of un-dyed smoked haddock (or other cold-smoked fish), about 120g
  • Half a pint of milk (approximately)
  • 6 tbsp of double cream
  • 1 tbsp grain mustard
  • 4 eggs
  • Butter, to grease the ramekins
  • A little sprinkle of parmesan cheese
  • Salt & pepper

Start preparing this dish about an hour before you intend to eat it, as there’s a certain amount of standing time involved. But this is a dish that you can prepare plenty of time in advance, and then just put in the oven when needed, which makes it a great choice for entertaining!

If you store your eggs in the fridge, get them out and let them come to room temperature.

Poach fish in milkPlace the fish in a small saucepan and just cover the fillet with milk (you might need a little more or a little less than half a pint, depending on the size of the pan and the thickness of the fillet). It’s fine to cut the fillet up into two or three pieces if this makes life easier. Bring the milk gently to the boil, and then take the pan off the heat and set to one side, and allow to cool. After 20 minutes to half an hour, it will have cooled to nearly room temperature, and the fish will have cooked through in the residual heat of the poaching liquid.

Flake your fishDrain the fish, discarding the milk. If your fish has skin on, this should now peel away really easily. Now break the cooked smoked fish up into flakes. Those observant souls amongst you may have noticed that there’s something unusual about my ‘haddock’. This is actually a home-smoked whole fillet of arctic char, made following the same technique as my home-smoked trout. I’ve made this dish with smoked trout in the past, and that’s quite lovely. To be honest, I think any cold-smoked fish would work here, so why not experiment?

Combine cream with fish and mustardIf you’re cooking your eggs straight away, pre-heat the oven to 170C. Give your pan a quick wash and dry, and heat the cream to nearly-boiling. Take it off the heat and incorporate the flaked fish, mustard, and salt and pepper to taste (I never feel the need to add extra salt, there’s plenty from the fish!). Allow to cool to room temperature – you can speed this process up by immersing the pan in cold water.

Ready to go in the ovenButter your ramekins. Now spoon the fish, cream and mustard mixture evenly between them. As you do, make a dip in the centre, this will encourage the egg yolks to settle in the centre, which makes it easier to cook them to a lovely soft texture later! Crack an egg into each ramekin. Finally sprinkle over a little bit of freshly ground pepper and a little bit of parmesan cheese.

If you’re not cooking these straight away, pop them in the fridge, but remember to get them out long enough before cooking that they come back up to room temperature before going in the oven.

Finished eggsPlace your ramekins in a flat-bottomed roasting dish, boil the kettle, and then carefully pour boiling water into the roasting dish to come about half way up the pots. Slide into your pre-heated oven. I find these take about 12 minutes to cook – you can judge how they’re getting along by the amount of ‘wobble’ on the contents of the pots when you move them gently. I try to cook mine so the yolks are still runny and silky-textured, but the white is fully set – your preferences may vary! – but it’s much easier to achieve this if you can get your yolks bedded neatly in the centre of the mixture.

When they’re ready, serve immediately and simply with the very best buttered bread – this is my sourdough – and enjoy!

Serve and enjoy!

**
Eggs - cover shot‘Eggs’ by Michel Roux
Quadrille Publishing Ltd, 2005. Paperback edition 2007. ISBN 978-1-84400-311-2.
304 pages, paperback, full colour. RRP £9.99.

[Full disclosure: This is my book, which I bought. I have received no payment or sponsorship for this post, nor have I accepted a review copy. I do not have an amazon affiliate account and do not profit from any links provided.]

This book is a little treasure trove of (unsurprisingly, given the author) predominantly French-influenced dishes, all featuring eggs, though not necessarily in a starring role.

All the stalwarts are here, of course – eggs scrambled and poached, fried, baked, and constructed into soufflés, omelettes, and so on. There are some less obvious choices too – some great traditional French deserts and sweet treats, ice creams, and even fresh pasta.

Inside page viewIf I had a criticism, it would be that this is actually a rather unhelpful book to pick up if, like me, you’re often in the position of having a lot of eggs that need eating and are in need of inspiration for what to do with them. These are, for the most part, quite sophisticated recipes and as a result tend to include ingredients which aren’t routinely in my fridge and store cupboards. That said, there a lot of wonderful-looking food here and I definitely need to make an effort to experiment further!

The book itself is a pretty medium-format paperback, the food photography (credited to Martin Brigdale) is mouthwatering, but bucks the recent trend to illustrate every dish, with some – like this little baked egg dish – not illustrated at all.

Each section of the book starts with a well illustrated guide to the essential techniques, and this is very helpful, particularly as some aspects of egg cookery – poaching, making custards, or emulsions like mayonnaise or hollandaise sauce – can sometimes seem a bit like dark culinary magic, even to the more experienced cook. This is a little book, then, which not only provides some great recipe inspiration, but could help sharpen up a few kitchen skills into the bargain!

‘Cooking the Books’ is my self-imposed blog challenge for 2014 – I’ll be trying to cook a new recipe from one of my (rather extensive!) collection of cookbooks once a week, write it up and review it. Wish me luck!

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Eggs with Cheese, from Ginette Mathiot’s ‘I Know How To Cook’ – Cooking the Books, week 3

A lovely quick and simple little lunch or light supper dish, and a great egg-using alternative to the ubiquitous omelette or fried eggs for those of us with our own hens.

To serve two –

  • Ingredients - eggs with cheeseFour eggs (preferably fresh from your own garden!)
  • Two big handfuls of grated cheese. Anything you fancy, really, as long as it’s a nice hard full flavoured cheese. I used some Lincolnshire Poacher left over from Christmas, the recipe called for Gruyère, but use whatever you enjoy or have around in the fridge.
  • A big knob of unsalted butter
  • Two tablespoons of chopped fresh parsley
  • Salt & pepper
  • A slice or two of toast per person to serve

Melted cheese and butterPut the butter, cheese, and parsley in a medium sized frying pan and warm on a low heat until the butter and cheese have melted. It does look like a lot of fat and butter, but don’t let this trouble you!

Eggs cookingCrack the eggs in on top of the buttery herby cheese mixture. If your pan is roomy enough to keep the eggs separate, all well and good, but if they meld together in the pan it’s not a big issue. Now just let the pan bubble away until the eggs are cooked. You can spoon some of the lovely butter over the top of the eggs to help cook the surface. You could put a lid on for a while, to help spread the heat, if your pan has one.

As the eggs cook, the cheese will take on a lovely golden crispness on the underside. Yum! When the egg whites are cooked, and the yolks are still nice and runny, serve simply with some toast (a good hunk of home-made bread is best – I wouldn’t bother buttering it, personally!), seasoned with a sprinkle of salt and pepper.

Eggs with Cheese -served

All done in under ten minutes, and a wonderful fresh, tasty meal. These eggs went particularly well with toasted Pain de Savoie!

**
Mathiot - I Know How To Cook‘I Know How to Cook (Je sais cuisiner)’ by Ginette Mathiot (adapted / translated by Clotilde Dusoulier & Imogen Forster)
In English translation – Phaidon, 2009. ISBN 978-0-7148-4804-4.
Hardcover, 976 pages. RRP £29.95.

[Full disclosure: This is my book, which I bought. I have received no payment or sponsorship for this post, nor have I accepted a review copy. I do not have an amazon affiliate account and do not profit from any links provided.]

‘I Know How to Cook’ is quite probably *the* classic of French domestic cookery. Continuously in print in French since 1932, think of this as Delia Smith’s ‘Cookery Course’ from across the Channel, with knobs on! I saw this English translation in a remaindered bookshop a few years ago, and snapped it up.

Flouncy French ‘haute cuisine’ this is definitely not – but it covers an enormous amount of ground. With over 1400 recipes, there’s enough here to keep you eating something different every day for about four years! And much of it, like these cracking cheesy eggs, is quick and simple everyday food that’s easy to knock up just for yourself, or for family, after a long day at work.

Mathiot - inner page viewJust to give you a sense of scale, I counted 77 egg recipes (that’s to say, recipes in which egg was the principal ingredient). There’s over a year’s worth of weekly experimentation just to get through that lot! But it also contains a raft of really classic, ‘show-off’ recipes which will knock the socks off your next dinner guests. While it may well have been written originally to help out newly married young wives, there’s truly something here for everyone!

This deserves to be one of the standard ‘go-to’ books if, like me, you sometimes find yourself staring at the ingredients you have, in the fridge and cupboards, and could do with some inspiration to help you combine them! Three (or more!) generations of French home cooks can’t be wrong, so go on and add this to your collection. You know you want to!

‘Cooking the Books’ is my self-imposed blog challenge for 2014 – I’ll be trying to cook a new recipe from one of my (rather extensive!) collection of cookbooks once a week, write it up and review it. Wish me luck!

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Easily Hooked – oops, I seem to have taken up crochet!

We had so much to do in the garden this weekend, but the weather hasn’t been friendly!  At least we managed to get the turf cleared from the unpromising rectangle of old ridge & furrow grass which is to be my experimental cut flower patch – watch this space for more (and photos!) in due course.  The greenhouse seedlings continue to thrive, though I’m struggling to believe the tomato seedlings are ever going to grow up big and strong enough to fruit! This time of year in the garden is always a mix of hope and doubt, without much to show yet for our efforts!

Stormy spring beech tree

But it’s raining, and there’s nothing to be done outside for the time being!

I hate to have my hands unoccupied (stop giggling there in the back!) so I suppose it was only a matter of time before I gave in and took up crochet.  Many years ago (half a lifetime, really!) I learned to knit, got good enough at it to make myself a jumper, and mastered some fiddly cable work, but it never really grabbed me.  I’ve always been impressed by the flexibility of crochet work, the variety of shapes and textures which crochet seemed to be able to achieve compared to two-needle yarn craft.  And then, about three weeks ago, by chance, I stumbled over the first part of a learn-to-crochet part-work magazine, complete with a 3.5mm hook, two balls of yarn, and a guide to basic stitches. All for 99p.

Well, I couldn’t resist. I started tinkering with a few stitches and patterns from the starter pack.  I did a bit of playing and made a little round basket out of some jute garden twine, just to see if I could.  It’s the simplest thing, with just a circle of double crochet stitches for the base, made without turning, and sides the same, but turned between rows, picking up only the front loop of the  V to add a horizontal stripe.

Jute basket bottom    Jute Basket inside    Jute basket detail with twine

It makes a lovely coaster for the bottle-cut vase I made a few weeks ago, using the bottle cutting jig I made last year.  Better still, it was surprisingly easy to make, despite the less than promising choice of yarn!

Jute basket with bottle vase

So that was it, really, I was hooked.  Obviously a single hook and a big ball of garden twine wasn’t going to get me very far, so I scurried off to the internet for a few supplies (oops!) – a couple of books for inspiration, a lucky-dip selection of yarns, and of course a set of different sized hooks.  I was good to go!

What do you make first but a scarf? Of course!

Crochet scarfI’m really happy with my first effort, the pattern is from Sue Whiting’s ‘The Crochet Bible’, which has served me really well as a crochet primer so far!  For a complete novice it was a nice simple project which gave a pleasingly complex-looking result, and came together over the course of just over a week.  I used a heather-coloured yarn I got in my mystery-pack, and I’m thrilled with the result.  The photo doesn’t quite do it justice, it’s not as blue as that!

Dave kindly offered to model it for you all, so you can see it a bit more clearly. (He continues to do very well, thank you for asking!)

Dave the dog

Of course, I couldn’t stop at just the one project.  The current one is straight out of my own head, a crochet string-bag for the summer – I think it would be great for a day at the beach.  I’ve used two of the colours of yarn in my lucky-dip pack that I think I’d struggle to wear – an orange that can only be described as ‘health & safety high-viz’ and a bright sunny lemon yellow.  I’m after a relaxed, cool, hippy-ethnic look, and I think we’re headed in the right direction – more photos, and instructions, once it’s finished, but here’s a sneak-peek of the work in progress..!

String bag - work in progress

Finally, some sad news this weekend from my hens – Gertie, my white hen, and the final member of my original hybrid quartet, went the way of all things on Saturday.  So RIP, dear Gertie.  All good things come to an end…  There’s always been a white hen in my hen-house.  I feel rather bereft.

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Overheard In The Salon – “You can get bacon from a butchers??”

Hair Salon NeopI had my hair cut last week.  This is only worthy of mention because it’s at best a bi-annual event for me.  Sitting there in your tinfoil bonnet, of course, there’s nothing to do except listen to the other customers and staff, or flick through weeks-old celebrity gossip magazines.  I chose the former.  Here’s the highlight of what I overheard, between two of the hairdressers during their tea break –

“So, they’ve said about processed food, you’re only supposed to eat one rasher of bacon a day”
“What? Bacon’s not processed food?”
“Yeah it is.  The bacon in the pack in your fridge, that’s processed food.  But if you get it from a butcher’s, it’s not.”
“You can get bacon from a butchers??”

Donner KebabIn the news that morning, the reports of a big impressive prospective mortality study involving analysis of participants’ consumption of processed meats.  It’s an odd category, that they’ve chosen – to include all cured and salted products, sausages, donner kebabs, but not all burgers.  Confusing enough that my hairdressers had a fairly poor grasp of the parameters, anyway.   Better perhaps if they’d restricted themselves to cured & smoked products, or gone wider and included all meat products that don’t arrive on the plate as recognisable pieces of whole muscle protein, without intervention beyond cooking.  For me, there are too many variables.

Cured meats contain salt in quite large quantities – of course they do, they’re salt-cured!  So does a bag of salt & vinegar crisps.  They will often contain nitrites – but then so does celery.  Mince-based processed meat products are generally higher in fat – they’re made from fattier cuts, and extra is often added as a bulking agent – but it’s perfectly possible to make a sausage from just minced pork shoulder, a bit of rusk or breadcrumb and some herbs and seasoning.  And it’s also perfectly possible to eat a very fatty, salty, meat-based meal that isn’t ‘processed’ in the slightest.

As with all giant lifestyle studies, the confounding factors are going to be enormous, too.  Do people who eat more processed meat eat less fresh fruit and vegetables, statistically speaking? Probably.  Are they heavier or lighter smokers or drinkers than the comparison population?  Attempts will have been made to correct for all of this, of course, but these are pretty blunt statistical instruments.

Mortality studies are always a problem for me.  I hate to break it to you, but your risk of mortality, my risk of mortality, the lifetime risk of mortality for everyone (and everything) currently alive on this planet, is 100%.  So you start looking at timeframe-mortality risks.  1 year.  5 year.  20 year.  The main risk factor for timeframe mortality?  Age, obviously – if you’re 80 going into a 20 year mortality study, things aren’t looking so good for you coming out the other side.  Then genetics – the intrinsic, inherited factors in your biology over which you have no control.  Then, I suppose, occupation and activities – if you’re a commercial deep diver, an alaskan crab fisherman, or like to race motorbikes or fly small aircraft, then these are going to have some effect.  A very very *very* long way down the list is what you had for breakfast!

Processed meat selectionMy hairdressers are right, though, about supermarket franken-bacon.  Give me proper dry-cured smoke-smoked bacon or ham any day, rather than the nasties that come in supermarket packs, injected as they are with a brine already including a ‘natural’ liquid smoke extract (no, really) among many other exciting additives.  Say no to that nasty leakage of milky phosphate water, and get some decent stuff from your local butcher (surprising an idea as that might seem to some!).  Say no to reconstituted ‘ham’ all gristle and mis-matched re-formed fat and muscle fibres.

If you needed any more reasons to want to avoid processed ‘junk’ foods, after the ongoing horsemeat-adulteration saga, look no further than this absolutely horrifying NYT article on The Extraordinary Science of Junk Food.

Of course we should all be trying to eat a balanced diet, mostly of fresh, local, good quality ingredients.  We should probably all, in the affluent West (and increasingly affluent East) be eating less meat, if we want to feed the world and pass the planet on to future generations in any kind of state at all.  But there are so many better reasons for that than trying to extend our survival.  Do it for the sake of good food, good flavour, and do it for the health of our environment.

Bacon for breakfast

So relax, enjoy your good quality butchers’ or home-cured bacons, hams, salt beef and bangers, and kick the supermarket junk.  Choose fresh, choose seasonal, choose local, and choose foods grown and reared, prepared and cooked with care, instead of being manufactured in anonymous processing plants at the end of a convoluted international commodity supply chain, down to a price selected by supermarket accountants.  I don’t see that you can go very far wrong!

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