Horsing Around – the horse meat burger scandal

Well, I’ve had a very restful almost-month off from blogging (hah!) but holidays can’t last forever, and it’s time to get back in the saddle…  An apposite metaphor, as it happens, as the foodie world has been up in arms this week about the horse meat burger scandal, affecting economy ‘beef’ burgers for sale in several British and Irish supermarkets.

'Cheval de Qualite'Let me start by saying, I don’t share many of my compatriots’ ‘shock-horror’ reactions at the idea of eating horse.  I’ve eaten horse meat in the past, and as it happens, it’s really rather good!  Horse meat is a perfectly normal part of the diet of many of our continental neighbours, and, when raised considerately, transported thoughtfully, slaughtered humanely, and inspected and prepared carefully, really presents no greater ethical problem than eating any other animal.

Yes, I’ve heard the cries of protest, that horses are sensitive, inquisitive, sociable animals.  So, I’m sorry to tell you, are cattle, sheep, and yes, even pigs and chickens.

Still reading? Good.

Why then the upset about the adulteration of economy ‘beefburgers’ with horse meat?  If it’s perfectly sound, healthy meat, why the howls of protest?  Surely we should be encouraging the incorporation of a cheap, healthy protein source into low-cost products?

Well, as always, it’s a bit more complicated than that!

First, there are the cultural considerations, of course.  We don’t ‘traditionally’ eat horse in Britain & Ireland. The ancient Celts may even have worshipped them. Whatever the root of it, for most Britons horses are pets and working animals, not food animals – much closer to the way we perceive dogs than the way we consider cattle, and we have a strong, reflex, cultural taboo against eating them. Of course, that doesn’t make their meat unsound, or unsafe, we just prefer not to eat them, in much the way that some people prefer not to eat shellfish. We need to take a deep breath and realise that this view is pure cultural preference, nothing more.

Tethered HorsesSecondly, it’s fair to concede that there are some reasonable concerns about the welfare of horses in the European food chain.  Often kept tethered or hobbled during life, they can then be transported by road over long distances under less than ideal conditions – overcrowded, and without food and water – before being slaughtered in a process more adapted to cattle, which may fail fully to take into consideration their particular needs as highly-adapted ‘flight’ animals.

There are, of course, equivalently serious concerns with many of our food animals – the over-bred over-producing black and white dairy cow who in many cases can no longer meet or control her own metabolic state and requirements, resulting in chronic stress and ill-health; industrially-reared pigs kept in denuded, overcrowded environments, on mesh floors, with a legacy of aggression, lameness and respiratory diseases; and who could forget the iconic battery hen, whose fate may or may not be  improved these days by the introduction of ‘enriched’ small group cages.  The bottom line is that we treat many of the animals whose lives are lived to feed us less than entirely well.  While the welfare of horses before and during slaughter can sometimes leave a lot to be desired, we need to accept that they are hardly a special case.

Thirdly, and most relevantly here, really, is the question of adulteration.  The horse meat was not declared as an ingredient in the burgers concerned (neither was pork, which was also detected as a contaminant in many of the beef burgers examined in the FSAI findings).  It’s quite plausible that the immediate manufacturers of the burgers (the Irish plant squishing them into burger shapes and packing them into a variety of wrappers) had no idea it was there, since it’s likely that the majority of the ingredients received at their premises would have been less than entirely recognisable.  I gather that the leading theory is that the horse protein entered the production process as ‘filler’ – mechanically recovered meat from carcasses which bears an awfully close resemblance to the ‘pink slime’ of recent North American food-panic.  ‘Economy’ grade burgers are permitted to contain just under 50% recognisable carcasse meat – the sort that can be removed from the bones with knives during processing – ‘fillers’, ‘extenders’, rusk and so on make up the other half.

The filler in these burgers may very well have been imported from a third country (so could the rest of the beef, for that matter, and the burgers will still have been labelled ‘Made in Ireland’, which is its very own joke on the question of provenance!).  If it was, then we can hope that the horse meat came through the official slaughter and inspection processes and had been duly found to be fit for human consumption.  Let’s give the manufacturers of the filler the benefit of the doubt and assume someone accidentally ‘slipped’ and a horse carcass made it onto the ‘beef’ MRM line.  Of course, one might have to wonder how many horse carcasses were ‘slipping’ into the beef filler line to give an estimated 29% total composition of horse meat in a burger required to be very nearly 50% ‘real’ beef.  Mmm.  Incidentally, the ‘real’ beef percentage is permitted to includes fat and sinew ‘naturally associated’ with the lean muscle tissue.  I’m going to bet the people doing the carcass trimming aren’t getting paid to leave any of that behind!

Boucherie ChevalineThe food safety concerns only really start to stack up if we consider that the horse meat may not have come in via a licensed slaughter and inspection process.  We do in fact have a small number of licensed horse slaughterhouses in the UK and Ireland – their meat is exported, for the most part.  [Interesting to note, is that it may not be incorporated into pet food intended for sale in the UK – which is required only to include meat and meat by-products from animals passed fit for human consumption, and which are traditionally consumed in the country of sale.]

For some years now, all horses in the EU have been required to have horse ‘passports’.  These identify the individual horse, usually by a combination of described markings and hair-coat characteristics (though sometimes via microchip), and contain a variety of important details about the horse and its health status, including vaccinations.

There is a page in the passport which contains a declaration that the horse is not intended for human consumption.  Some horse owners immediately endorse this declaration for their animals, presumably on emotional grounds, but some, more pragmatically, wait until the issue becomes relevant.  The relevance is one of veterinary care, and administration of medicines in particular.

A number of the veterinary medicines in common use in horses – especially in the UK – are specifically prohibited from use in animals intended for human consumption, because of their potential to cause significant ill-health in humans should they enter the food chain.  The cannot be administered to horses unless they have been declared to be barred from the food chain.  Some are carcinogens – substances that may cause cancers – some can cause blood dyscrasias – abnormalities of blood cell production which can be irreversible and sometimes fatal.  Potentially nasty stuff.  There is undoubtedly an argument for these medicines being withdrawn from use in horses full-stop, however this needs to be balanced against their genuine value and utility in maintaining the health, welfare, and working lives of scores of horses whose entry into the human food chain was never in question.

It’s often noted that the system of horse passports is a bit ‘soft’, with multiple issuing authorities – in particular, since there’s no central register of identification marks, there is actually relatively little to prevent an owner ‘mislaying’ a horse’s passport and procuring a clean replacement.

'Mangez du Cheval'Should – and I think this is unlikely – the horse meat in the burger have been slaughtered ‘irregularly’ in Ireland and not subjected to the normal pre-slaughter and post-mortem health inspections, and checking of documentation, then this would open the possibility of entry of unsound or pharmaceutically-contaminated meat into the human food chain.

Actually, it’s quite likely that the horse-meat burger scandal presented no risk to health – or, should I say, no additional risk to health compared to these economy ‘beef’ burgers if they’d been manufactured according to their specification.  The more processed your food, the greater the supermarket buyers’ downward pressure on costs, the more links in the chain, the more ingredients in the list, the more hands (quite literally) it has passed through on its way to you, the greater the chances both for accidental contamination, and of intentional adulteration in pursuit of a profit.

'Healthy Living'This is the crux, for me.  Highly processed, cheap meat products like these economy burgers are just plain nasty. They taste nasty. They’re nasty to your health. And they’re undoubtedly nasty for the poor animals that have been reared to a price point eventually to be minced up into them.

I make little apology for my view that we should not be selling and eating food like this.  Yes, I’m aware that there are people out there – elderly or disabled, living on benefits – for whom these highly processed economy meat products are the ‘best’ they can afford.  I’m afraid I don’t believe that we have a right to eat meat every meal, or every day.  In fact, we’d all – even those of us lucky enough to be able to afford it if we want to – be healthier if we chose not to, never mind the benefits to the environment and animal welfare which would result from fewer animals being raised with greater care.  If you can’t afford, or can’t source, a recognisable piece of an animal that has been raised with care and slaughtered with consideration, you should not be eating meat today.  Not all good meat is expensive, there’s a very long tradition, in the UK as everywhere else, in making great food from bargain cuts.  Yes, I appreciate that there’s a huge deficit in cooking skills, particularly among my generation, which means many wouldn’t know where to start if presented with a brisket, a shin of beef, or a breast of lamb – all quite marvellous, cheap, real healthy cuts of meat – but surely *this* is what we need to address, rather than filling the gap by selling people adulterated, industrially produced convenience-papp in brightly coloured cardboard cartons.  We should not be eating this.  No one should be eating this.  It’s just nasty.

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Get Stuffed – filled glass bauble decorations – Blog Advent (11)

Just a quick decoration ideas blog this evening – a lovely personal way to brighten up plain glass Christmas baubles.

Filled baubles

These are a handful I made this evening, using some feathers I gathered up from my hens earlier in the year when they were moulting, as well as some left over metallic skeleton leaves from last year’s Christmas crackers.  Last year, I made a few with shredded up knitting wool – the little tutorial I wrote then goes through the basic process, so I won’t repeat myself.

Glass bauble with feathers  Metallic skeleton leaves  Chicken feathers

The rather scary surgical-looking forceps in the image above aren’t compulsory, but are a very useful tool for feeding feathers and leaves through the small opening to the bauble, and arranging them inside if necessary.  I picked these up in a pack of mixed instruments for a couple of quid from a craft supplier on eBay, they’ve come in very handy for one thing and another!  But if you haven’t got anything like that, a pair of tweezers will work almost as well.  Do get real glass baubles – they’re much more attractive that the plastic ones and usually much easier to break into, too!

You could use anything you like, of course – pretty sand from a favourite holiday beach, little shells, glitter, or artificial snow with some small Christmas decorations might make an interesting seasonal twist?  I’m really looking forward to getting the tree up on Thursday to see how they work with all my other decorations!

Advent - day 11

I’m trying to write a post a day during Advent, so, please come along with me while I try to Blog Advent – the Country Skills Way – and forgive me if I don’t quite manage it!

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Clucking Mayhem – introductions, is the worst over?

Five weeks ago, I drove a 200 mile round trip to bring home three new hens to add to my little backyard flock. Introducing new hens is always a difficult process, they can be remarkably opinionated creatures and don’t enjoy having new housemates!  The ‘pecking order’ is a very real, and sometimes rather violent thing.  For the sake of both my new and existing hens, I wanted to achieve as gentle and stress-free an introduction process as I possibly could, and made arrangements to take my time about it.  You can catch up with the story so far, from coming home, first introductions, and settling in together.

Reasonably settled?

The weekend before last, once the hens were reasonably settled living together, but sleeping mostly apart, I took the second henhouse out of the run, leaving a dodge-board for the small girls to get out of sight behind if necessary.  There was a bit of stress around bedtime the first couple of nights, but the girls are now all bedding down comfortably side by side on the perches, and during the day, apart from the odd scuffle, are mixing, feeding, preening and generally getting on with happy relaxed henny-things!  Egg production is down, but then it’s well into autumn and more dark than light these days so that’s hardly surprising.

Flora continues to wear her bit – her behaviour is the last remaining problem, it’s not really her fault, I suppose, but things would be really nice and settled without her disturbing influence on the flock.  I think – though it might be wishful thinking – that the frequency and savagery of her attempted attacks on the other girls are reducing a little.  With a bit of luck, in another month or so, the headgear can come off.  In the meantime it seems to be causing her very little difficulty, she’s eating well and laying better than anyone else at the moment, giving an egg almost every day.

Midge is growing up fast, with more comb and wattle than she had when she first arrived, and a hunger to match the growth rate.  I’d love to think we’d get some eggs from her soon, though I suppose it may not be until spring.

With a bit of luck – though I hate to put it in black and white and jinx it! – things are settling nicely now.  I had in mind that things would take about a month to bed down and we’re pretty much on that target.  I really hope the girls can get on with enjoying their seasonal treats (the Halloween pumpkins are going down rather well just now!) and lay me lots of nice tasty eggs for a long time to come!

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More Clucking Mayhem – the poultry palaver continues

Just over a week after we mixed the two groups of hens, it’s gone time for an update on progress!  Well, I still have six hens (hey, you’ve got to look on the bright side).

They’re all living together in the run during the day, though the three new girls have still been choosing to bunk in the temporary hen-house at night.  Tonight, for the first time, though, Agnes is asleep with the original trio in the ‘big house’, leaving only Doris and Midge in the temporary accommodation.  Doris is still using the temporary housing to lay, whereas Agnes has been laying in the main coop for a few days now.  The pecking order that established on that first morning out in the garden still appears to be in force, with the strange Agnes > Mabel > Flora > Agnes loop surviving for now.

Flora with Mabel

Speaking of Flora, she’s still wearing her bumper bit.  Flora has turned out to be the real problem – I suspect without her presence in the flock everyone would be living essentially in harmony by now.  Gertie and Mabel, the two other members of the ‘original’ trio are happy to be side-by-side with the new girls and only scuffle with them very occasionally.  Flora has a bad temper, a bad attitude, and seems to spend her life spoiling for a fight.  It doesn’t help that she’s also unusually stupid, even by chicken standards.  Thick and bad tempered, what a winning combination!  Until she’s spending less time trying to thrash poor Doris and Midge into submission, the muzzle is going to have to stay on.

In terms of the effect the bit is having on Flora, it’s less marked than I’d anticipated.  She can eat and drink from the normal feeders and drinkers (we made sure of this before taking the additional open drinker out of the enclosure) and goes to bed every night with a bulging crop.  She seems to be able to graze to at least an extent, and remains (sadly!) able to bully the other hens, though less so than if she could pull feathers too!  The only obvious consequence is in her ability to preen herself.

I suppose it stands to reason that a device primarily designed to stop hens pulling feathers out of other hens would also impair their ability to closely comb their own.  Flora is looking really quite tatty, but it’s something she’s going to have to live with for now.  Despite her muzzle, she still has the girls terrified, chases them to cower behind the hen house, and if they don’t get away fast enough she’ll leap on their backs while they cower and try to pull neck feathers.  I don’t doubt that given the opportunity she’d be doing them real damage, there’s a genuine ferocity to her attacks and I don’t know how long it’s going to take for that to settle down.  Soon, I hope, for her sake as well as everyone else’s!

The next bridge to cross is removing the temporary coop so that all six girls are bunking together.  They could do with the space back in the extension run, and the nights are getting colder, the open-doored temporary house is no place for any of the girls to be sleeping on a cold winter’s night.  We’ve had our first frost here now, so it won’t be long before they’ll really want to be tucked up warm at night!

Still, only just two and a half weeks after I brought the three new girls home in a carrier, overall things are going pretty well.  After the experience of introductions last time, I’d reckoned it would take a month to get things settled and so far I think we’re pretty much on target for that, with a bit of luck.  How long Flora is going to have to be muzzled, though, I don’t want to guess at this point!

Stay tuned for more, folks, from the ongoing poultry palaver!

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Clucking Mayhem – chicken introductions, poultry politics and a bit on the side

I’m blogging from the garden right now, because I’m on hen watch. For the last four hours, my three new hens, and three existing birds, have been free ranging together.  After just over a week of living in adjoining but separate runs, I’m hoping this is the next stage in getting them to co-exist happily as a group of six.

Gertie and Midge

Mixing groups of hens is difficult.  Yes, they look sweet and innocent, don’t they?  But hens’ social structures are complex, and established and enforced by drawing blood (or worse!) if necessary.  That pecking order you’ve heard thrown about as a metaphor?  Well, it’s real.  And nasty.  It’s at times like this that you don’t get to forget than hens really are little dinosaurs at heart.  Genuine pint-sized feathery little T-Rexes.  Next time you get to spend some time watching hens, have a look in their faintly-reptilian eyes and tell me it isn’t so!

Home advantage is a big thing, so I expect the new girls to come off worse, and end up at the bottom of the new pecking order.  It’s more complicated than it might be, though, because Agnes and Doris are adult hens – the same age as Flora from the original trio.  To be honest, I was expecting the whole thing to degenerate into an explosion of swearing and flying feathers as soon as the six were out together.  It didn’t, much to my surprise!

My existing three, as far as I can tell, are ranked with Gertie (the white hen) at the top of the pile, Mabel the Isa Brown in the middle, and speckeldy-grey Flora at the bottom of the stack.  Flora was introduced to the flock last year, and got a bit of a nasty kicking in the process, mostly from Mabel who seemed to declare herself ‘enforcer’.  She still gets the sharp end of Mabel and Gertie’s short temper sometimes, particularly when there’s a tasty morsel or two they don’t want to share.

Midge and DorisThe new girls have established with Agnes, the Welsummer (and biggest of the bunch) at the top, Doris the small but adult Legbar in the middle, and Midge, the New Hampshire Red pullet at the bottom.  Agnes flexes her muscles, on occasion, though things have settled nicely.  Midge and Doris are pretty much inseparable, but Doris does occasionally remind Midge who’s in charge.

What’s really interesting to me at the moment is that Gertie and Agnes seem to have settled on what can only be described as an armed truce.  Neither has taken beak or claw to the other (well, if you ingnore Gertie pitching Agnes out of her favorite dust bath – Gertie is *very* protective of her dust bath), and they’ve been very much in each others strike range without hackles up or much in the way of posturing.  Agnes seems to have yielded subtly – she will give over to Gertie, but only just as much as necessary.  I don’t know what Gertie’s secret is, she just seems to exude natural authority!  It gets odder still.  Agnes seems to have established above Mabel (who runs for cover when she sees Agnes coming) but below Flora (who has a similar effect on the otherwise unflappable Agnes).  No doubt this is going to take some sorting out down the line, since I’m not sure pecking orders permit loops!

Flora is a fascinating character.  I suspect it’s the same cycle of abuse that’s described in humans.  She was the hen who reacted most violently to the arrival of the newcomers last week – lunging at them through the bars and even drawing blood on Agnes’ comb on the first day.  She’s declared herself ‘enforcer’ this time around, and thrown herself into the role with gusto, lunging straight at Agnes the first opportunity she got, landing on her back and really viciously pulling out neck feathers.  I’m not surprised Agnes is afraid of her!

Flora's bitThere’s a substantive difference between Flora’s attacks and those of the other bids.  The other hens will peck, will grab and pull feathers, even fly at each other feet first, but generally speaking, just enough to make their point.  Flora’s attacks are really aggressive, no-holds barred, with malice aforethought.  It became clear over the first half hour or so that if left to her own devices, Flora was going to injure one or more of the new birds, possibly seriously, so we decided to catch her and fit her with a bumper bit.

Bumper bit & pliersThis is a little plastic device which sits with a pair of prongs in the nostrils (a bit like the earpieces of a stethoscope), and has a flat bar across the mouth between the top and bottom beak and a ‘bumper’ type bar which wraps outside the mouth around the front of the beak.  By stopping the upper and lower beak coming together normally, it’s designed to prevent feather and skin pulling, and the ‘roll-bar’ in front of the point of the beak should stop her using this as a sharp weapon!

Flora wearing her bitIt’s the first time I’ve used a bit and it wasn’t a decision I made lightly.  While Flora can drink, and eat with the bit in, it does restrict her choices.  She can munch down on pellets and corn just as well as always, but grazing and preening are more difficult. Immediately after it was fitted, she was obviously aware of it and rather unhappy, she rubbed her beak on the floor and scratched at it with her feet.  But she’s settled with it now, and is foraging around the garden normally.

It hasn’t entirely disarmed her (or improved her temper!) – she’s still throwing her weight around – but the damage she’s able to inflict has been greatly reduced, as has the general level of anxiety amongst the other bids.  I’m hoping we can restrict the use of the bit to the shortest period of time we can – ideally a few days to a week or so – though we’ll have to see how the rest of the politics settle down.

Doris and Midge are going to be at the bottom of the new pecking order, but apart from the initial attacks from Flora, and the odd ‘establishment peck’ from the other hens, seem to have been mostly left alone for now.  I’ll be watching these two with particular concern when we house the girls this evening, as they may well get a rougher time when they haven’t got so many options for getting out of the way.

All the hens have been in and out of the open, now combined houses-and-runs.  Gertie seems particularly entranced by the new contraption-house!  We have two feeding stations and three drinkers in place at the moment to reduce unpleasantries associated with competition for resources.  The second house will be staying for now, as an option for any hens who don’t fancy running the gauntlet of the main coop!

Agnes enjoys a dust bath

Over all, mostly so far I’m startled by how well things have gone today.  It’s been a huge improvement on the last set of introductions – but then I learned a lot from that experience! I don’t for a minute believe that things will continue to go this smoothly, but it’s a really nice place to be starting from!

Stay tuned, folks, as the ‘clucking mayhem’ continues!

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Getting Clucky – welcome the new hens!

Three of my hens!I’ve kept hens for about three years now.  Until this week I still had three of my original four hybrid hens, but sadly on Monday Spot, my beautiful Rhode Rock (the black hen in this trio), passed away.  This was sad in itself, but also left me with three hens, one of whom (Gertie) hasn’t laid for some time, and the other two (Mabel, and younger hen Flora who came into the flock as a pullet last year) are moulting and won’t lay me anything for a few weeks at best – at worst they won’t think about it again until the days start to lengthen again.

Since my first four pullets came into lay, I haven’t bought a single box of commercial eggs (admittedly hen-keeping neighbours and colleagues have provided the occasional half dozen when my needs have exceeded my supply!).  So, I had an egg supply problem, and one that I didn’t want to solve by going back to retail eggs.  We thought about this for a while, and decided it was time to bring in a few more hens.

This wasn’t a decision we made lightly – last year, after losing Hazel, the first of my four original girls, we introduced two new pullets to our flock. The process was hugely stressful – hens can be vicious creatures, and it’s when when they turn nasty that you really see them for the tiny little feathered dinosaurs they are!  Flora and Daisy eventually settled well, but the introduction process was ghastly (and at times, brutal).  Sadly, we then lost Daisy tragically young last Christmas.

Dave welcomes the new girlsOn Thursday, I drove a 200 mile round trip to see a chicken supplier, Chris at Poultry Park in Newent, who I knew from our previous life in Gloucestershire.  I came home with three traditional breed birds – two hens, a Cream Legbar (Legbars lay blue eggs) and a Welsummer, both a year old and ‘retired’ breeding birds, and an 18 week old New Hampshire Red pullet.  Dave, our collie, was immediately intrigued by the new arrivals, and came very sweetly to say hello!

The new girlsThe new girls have moved into a run extension at the bottom of the old girls’ run.  The idea is to allow them some time to get used to the sight, sound, and smell of each other before introducing them to the same living space.  I tried the ‘short, sharp shock’ introduction approach last time, and wished I hadn’t, so it’s slowly-slowly this time.

The existing trio of hens were not impressed by the arrival of the new three girls, and Thursday afternoon was a chorus of sometimes angry chickeny-shouting in the garden.

First 'contraption' temporary hen-houseTheir first night, the new hens roosted in a ‘contraption’ of a henhouse we put together from an old cardboard box, a hedgerow stick, and a tarpaulin.  Necessity is the mother of invention, or so they say!  Anyway, the New Hampshire pullet (now called Midge) didn’t appreciate our efforts and decided to sleep out on the roof rather than inside the house with the other two!

Egg of brightest blueOn her very first afternoon with us, the Cream Legbar (now named Dorris) laid us an egg.  This egg.  A *blue* egg.  I’ve *always* coveted a hen that lays blue eggs.

If only it were all that simple, of course.  There’s a lot to do, yet, before the new girls can be settled in nicely with the existing trio.

New, improved 'contraption 2'On Friday evening, I got home to find my lovely husband half-way through building a new contraption out of the remains of an old laminate-chipboard office desk. I would have taken photographs, but it was getting late and we had to get the job done!  The new house is a huge improvement, much more robust and seems appreciated by all three girls, who are happily sleeping and (in the case of the adult hens) laying eggs inside it.

The three new girls are new to each other, too, of course – and with two of them being adult hens, there’s been some politics to work out.  Agnes, the Welsummer, is the biggest of the batch, and has decided to assert her authority.  This was all getting a bit nasty on Friday and by Saturday Dorris and Midge were looking a bit cowed, hiding away in the house with Agnes strutting about outside, or worse, guarding the pop-hole to the henhouse.

We resorted to applying some anti-peck spray to the neck and shoulder feathers of the two smaller hens.  They’ve also had several spells of free ranging time this weekend, and whether it’s that, or the slight re-arrangements we’ve also made to the space and the feeding arrangements, or just time passing, relationships seem a bit better and less stressed. By this evening with everyone was out in the run, eating and drinking and scratching around together and only occasional outbreaks of pecking-order politics.  Gertie, Mabel and Flora seem less on edge and more settled back in their normal daily routine, too. They’re even giving the odd egg!

Egg skelter

All seems relatively settled for now, and with Agnes also laying some gorgeous chocolate-brown eggs, after three years of hen keeping, finally, I’ve got the egg basket (well, egg-skelter) of my long-held dreams.  Yes, I know they all taste the same, but aren’t they beautiful?

I expect the next few weeks to involve more than their usual share of stresses and difficult moments – never a dull moment with pets and livestock!  I’ll keep you posted!

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Gosh, an award!

A very long time ago (goodness, back in March!) I got an unexpected blog comment from The Bead Den Craftivities awarding me this beauty –

It’s taken me forever to do anything about it, for which I can only apologise!  The rules of the award are quite simple, and require me to do the following –

First – and most importantly – to thank the person who awarded it to me.  So, thank you so very much to The Bead Den – and do go back and read the nomination post here, since it contains links to lots and lots of other worthwhile things.  The rest of the blog is also great, of course, and well worth your attention!

Second – to tell you all seven things about me you probably didn’t know.  This was hard (and the main thing to be honest that’s slowed me down these almost-two-months!). So here goes nothing!

  1. I’m a master mariner’s granddaughter.  Mostly this means I’m good at tying knots, and seem to have inherited a genetic resistance to motion sickness!  Once upon a time I could do semaphore and morse code, too, but I’ve forgotten how.
  2. I learned to love real ale aged 19 (university has a lot to answer for!).  Ten years later, aged 29, I started to brew my own.
  3. Three of my hens!I have four hens – Gertie, Mabel, Flora, and Spot.  I can heartily endorse back-yard hen keeping, which is a source of great joy (and fantastic eggs!).  Hens make wonderful pets.
  4. I have a 2.1 in Computer Science from the University of Cambridge.  This has no bearing whatsoever on my day job!
  5. I love learning new things, which tends to mean I acquire a new hobby at least once a year – much to my husband’s distress, as he points out (quite rightly!) that there’s no room in our small cottage for any more of my ‘stuff’.   When the hobby turns out to produce something he can eat or drink, he’s a bit more easily mollified!
  6. I have no formal training in cooking, sewing, brewing, curing, butchery, horticulture, photography, writing (beyond GCSE English!), chandlery, or really any of the other skills in this blog – I do have a habit of thinking ‘how hard can it be?’ and just giving things a try!  I have to remind myself from time to time that the other key question is ‘what could possibly go wrong??’.
  7. I adore the information, inspiration, and new perspectives which I get from fellow bloggers, and it’s great to think that in a small way I can contribute to that rich community!  [Ok, perhaps this doesn’t really qualify as ‘surprisng’ but I was really struggling for number 7!]

Third – to nominate seven more bloggers for this wonderful (and pretty, isn’t it?) award.  There’s no obligation here, folks, if you’ve been given this award before, I’m sorry to bother you again, and if you have better things to do, that’s just dandy!  But without further ado, and in no particular order, here are my seven nominees (along with a quick note about why I think their blogs are so great, and always look forward new posts) –

From Belly to Bacon – charcuterie, what more is there to say?

Very Berry Handmade – amazing fabrics, designs & sewing inspiration

The Rowdy Chowgirl – great food, and fermentation – just what every girl needs!

Into Mind – fashion & clothing customisation

Domestic Diva, M.D. – fabulous anecdotes & comfort food

Happiness Stan Lives Here – lots of red-meat based solid grub

Conker & Indigo Recipes – great food & photos

Finally, I have to go and comment on all their blogs to let them know they’ve won (and with apologies for the, um, kreativ spelling) – I hope they’re suitably psyched, or at least not too irritated with me!

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Signs of Spring – the lambs are arriving!

Not much to say today, folks.  Just thought I’d share some photos of lambs that I shot yesterday evening just before sunset on my mobile phone camera.  Aren’t they wonderful? (The lambs, that is, the matter of the greatness or otherwise of the photos is left as an exercise for the reader…)

          

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A little egg-centricity – all about the chicken and the egg

Nothing beats a really fresh free range egg.  For breakfast, fried or poached, boiled or scrambled, or for lunch in an omelette, a really fresh egg – preferably laid this morning – is head and shoulders above any other egg you’ve ever tasted.  You can see the difference straight away, even before you crack it – the shell may well be a bit grubby, and a slightly funny shape, an unexpected or uneven colour.  When you crack it open, the egg white is firm and ‘sits up’ in the pan, and the yolk is a deep orange, and bigger than you expected – if beaten, the raw egg is a rich dark yellow, rather than off-white.  In your mouth the yolk is velvety and rich, creamy and almost sweet with a luxuriant almost-custard quality and the white is firm but never rubbery – a million miles away from the flaccid anaemic and tasteless output of battery cages and the supermarket supply chain.

Fresh egg

It’s a sad fact that in the supermarket dominated, urban West, most people have probably never tasted a really good, fresh egg.  We think of eggs as being uniform, sized and graded, cheap and frankly, dull.  But they’re a natural product, and they vary – in size, colour and shape – and from the very firmest, freshest example, to the end of their storage life when the egg white is watery and the best of the flavour is gone.

I said nothing beats a very fresh egg, but of course that depends what you’re doing with it. If you want to beat the egg and use it to help with raising – in baking, or a soufflé – or you want hard boiled eggs peeled for a Salade Niçoise, then the very freshest eggs aren’t for you.  The egg white – the albumen – is actually in two parts.  The outer albumen is quite watery, you can see it spread out in the pan in the photo above.  The inner albumen is much more firm in a very fresh egg (but in an egg which has been stored for some time you probably won’t be able to see a distinction between the two).  In a very fresh egg this inner albumen has too much structure and tends to want to hold together, which doesn’t allow the batter to rise properly.  Furthermore, if you hard boil a really fresh egg and then remove the shell, the outer albumen will come away with the shell, which is a waste and makes for a scruffy-looking boiled egg.  Eggs about a week old are best for baking and hard boiling – realistically you won’t get eggs much fresher than this from the supermarket, though.

Egg storage

These are my eggs, and three things are obvious – first the range of shapes and sizes, secondly that they’re in some sort of wire device (it’s called an Egg Skelter, and I wouldn’t be without it) and not in the fridge, and thirdly that, frankly, they’re a bit grubby!

The size variability is something that you have to make adjustments for with ungraded eggs.  My approach is to weigh them and then adjust according to standard size references.  The Lion Egg Scheme people have a size guide here.

Fresh eggs will keep safely at room temperature for 3 weeks (it’s no coincidence that this is the length of time they have to stay ‘fresh’ under a warm hen if being hatched!), but if you do put them in the fridge, then you need to leave them there.  If eggs are removed from refrigeration, moisture condenses on the outside of the shell and can then be drawn through into the inside of the egg by osmosis, potentially pulling pathogens from outside the shell into the egg itself and increasing the risk of food poisoning.  My eggs don’t sit around for anything like three weeks (if I have a glut I know plenty of people who are happy to help me deal with it!) so storage at room temperature is ideal.  Better still, the egg skelter enforces first-in-first-out use, which is trickier with other storage systems.

So you’d think washing the dirt from the outside of the egg would be a good idea, right?  In fact dissolving these contaminants in water, and disrupting the outside surface of the shell, also increase the risk of pathogen entry.  Much better to leave grubby eggs as they are, and rub off any loose dirt and mud from the surface just before use.  Egg washing is not permitted in the production chain for commercial shell eggs in the UK, on a risk assessment basis, though it is common practice in other countries including the US (they tend to wash in a chlorine solution – because bleach is what you want in your eggs!).  This goes some way to explaining the obsession with clean eggs in intensive production systems – and the resulting battery cages (improved, but not yet gone), as ‘dirty’ eggs are downgraded.

I’ve kept hens for two and a half years now.  I wasn’t expecting get as attached to them as I have, they’re fascinating animals.  Funny feathery little dinosaur-descendants they certainly are, they’re inquisitive, social (and not always sociable!) little creatures.  Only when you’ve watched hens scratch around for bugs, enjoy a bit of a flap and a wing stretch, and then settle down into a well-earned and apparently thoroughly indulgent dust bath, can you really start to understand how inhumane intensive cost-led egg production systems are.  This is Gertie, by the way, my ‘top hen’, being a bit confused by her first sight of snow, and wondering what I’m doing with that camera.

Outdoor hen

You may not be able to keep your own poultry, but if only for the sake of your palate (never mind the quality of life of the poor intensive egg-producing bird) it’s worth seeking out the best and freshest outdoor reared eggs you can find – farmers markets and farm shops are a great place to start – or ask around, you may be surprised to find a colleague keeps backyard hens, and if you’re really super nice to them, they may be prepared to share! Then, enjoy your wonderful, freshest eggs, with the best home cured bacon for the most amazing breakfast fry-up you’ve ever tasted.

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