Tuesday, 30 April 2013

The sweet (and sour) smell of success!

After tucking the sourdough starter into the thermal cooker yesterday, I left it undisturbed near the combustion fire (which was on a lot of the day). 

I resisted the urge to check progress last night and instead waited till this morning - about 23 hours since preparing the starter.  Success!  There were quite a few bubbles and the smell was rather unpleasant, causing Nick and Vaughan to exit the kitchen area very quickly holding their noses!

As funny as their loud protests were, the smell is in fact a good sign because according to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall fermentation is "... signalled by the appearance of bubbles on the surface and a smell of ... well, of fermentation (it can actually smell quite unpleasant and acrid at this stage but don't worry, it will mellow as it matures)."  Good to know I don't stink at making starter!

I fished the rhubarb out, fed the starter some more flour and a drizzle of water to maintain the consistency - then tucked it back into the thermal cooker.  Today is warmer than yesterday so I haven't lit the fire but hopefully the starter will continue to bubble away nicely (and smell a bit sweeter when I check on it tomorrow)!

Monday, 29 April 2013

More sour words ...

I'm not sure whether our previous sourdough starter failed to start - or started without us and we missed it! 

In any case, it's now finished and starting again seemed the best course of action.

In the past week I've done more research about sourdough starters.  It seems the optimum temperature for yeast activity is somewhere between 20 and 30 degrees.  At the moment it is 10 degrees at 10am.

Although the sun is out and the sky is clear, it is obviously not overly warm inside (or outside).  Conditions are therefore not ideal for starting a starter but I took heart from reading some instructions here, where the author prevailed during a Melbourne winter. After some pondering I decided to start the starter tucked up in my (new) thermal cooker.  I reckon it might work and if it doesn't I can always start again - again!

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Eighty-eight eggs!

It is 35 days since the chookies came to live with us - just over one tenth of a year. As you can see, we've been diligently charting their egg production. It's interesting to look back over the weeks. There has definitely been a slight drop in out-lay (hah!) since the weather cooled.

When Vaughan was a much younger fellow he particularly liked the number 80.  If he wanted to impress upon us an extra-large quantity he would repeat "eighty-eighty-eighty-eighty"!

Against that family history, it's quite fitting that we celebrate the gift of our 88th egg (which also has some fabulous alliteration)!

Dragging along ...

The girls have been in their Fox-proof Fowl Fort (FpFF) for just three weeks.  In that time they've well and truly scratched over the ground within the enclosure and we deemed it time to move them along a little bit. 

Nick rigged a rope between a corner of the Fort and Elmer's tow-ball.  All looked to be moving along well, though the stress on some of the joining cable ties caused a few breakages at one point - so a change of plan was needed. 

The Fort was therefore moved in two parts and then re-joined once in it's new position.  While we were re-locating their quarters the girls enjoyed some time free-ranging about the yard, under Vaughan's supervision.  They stayed reasonably close to him (no doubt hoping for more crickets), so it was a fairly easy exercise to put them back into the Fort when it was ready! 

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Things that go chomp in the night!

On our first morning here, Vaughan and I lay in bed and watched a mouse zip out from an overgrown garden bed and run past the window.  He/she was cute - not least because of being on the right side (i.e. the out-side) of the glass! 

We hired cleaners to help prepare the house for our arrival.  They explained that the pieces of metal scouring pad poked into the brickwork at various points were to deter mice from entering the house through small cracks. 

Obviously rats and mice have found alternative routes inside as we have become increasingly aware of their chomping and scurrying through the night.  I was woken very recently because the gnawing noise was so loud!  We all had a look in the roof cavity this afternoon.  There is much evidence of both rats and mice - and of previous efforts to eradicate them.  We also found a stuffed lion toy and a cobweb broom?!

Nick has been planning a trap the past few days.  One of Vaughan's bug-boxes has been converted, using wire and some pipe that was lying around.  A generous serving of peanut butter has been placed inside and the trap installed in the roof.  Vaughan thought the rodents would appreciate some bread as well but Nick veto-ed that idea.  (Suggestions of tea, orange juice and other beverages were similarly dismissed)!

Thursday, 25 April 2013

ANZAC Day ...

Vaughan's school held an afternoon ANZAC service yesterday.  As part of the day's preparations, the students made ANZAC biscuits, which were offered for afternoon tea - and sample packs sent home to share with family.  Vaughan and I made more ANZAC biscuits (aka ANZACies) today. 

There was maths involved as we doubled the recipe he had carefully written out at school.  There was science also, when the bicarb soda was added to the water - and then to the melted butter/golden syrup mix. 

We made 49 biscuits in total.  Vaughan insisted that the chookies be given a taste-test, so they shared the first one!  Of course there were plenty of biscuits left - enough to send a large jar with Nick, for sharing with work colleagues also on shift during the public holiday.  The remaining "ANZACies" are still on the bench, proving quite a temptation.  I doubt there will be any more for the girls!

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Churning out chutney ...

Well, "churning out" may be an exaggerated claim but I've certainly made a lot of chutney in the past week and a half - the equivalent of at least twenty large jars!

I've tried to vary the flavours, so used four different recipes.  In most cases I made double batches (where I had sufficient ingredients).  

I'd like to make more of the apple/beetroot variety but will need to purchase more beetroot, praps from a farmers market over the weekend.

My first chutney batch was the only one that used apple without any other fruit or vegetable.  I gave away a jar and have since received a lovely review from the recipient, so will definitely be making more of that recipe. Tonight's variety is still yet to be properly tasted but could be good if the scrapings from the saucepan are any indication!  I'm on the lookout for more flavours though and have bookmarked a couple of possibilities for further experimentation over the next few days.

Gifting goodies ...

I started putting this gift basket together last night - and finished the arrangement this morning, fiddling with the labelling etc.  It was a pleasant, reflective task. 

I've always enjoyed the process of selecting and presenting gifts.  I often prefer to give something I've made myself, where possible - a choice that stems as much from my creativity as any budgetary considerations.  

Although there is always pleasure in packaging my gifts, I felt particularly satisfied when I packed this basket as the contents are all our produce, grown at Hamby Home(in)stead or made from ingredients that grew on the property - eggs, apples, a fig, rosemary and four jars of different flavoured chutney.  So as much as we are giving the basket to say thanks, we are also very appreciative of living here and having the opportunity to share some of our home-grown bounty.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

50kg weigh-in!

I've been cutting, peeling and cooking many, many apples.  I worked for at least a couple of hours this morning, long enough that my knife-hand was beginning to cramp. 

I wasn't really timing the exercise but took several large bowls of peelings etc to our compost bin.  The resident mice will be apple-flavoured for sure, if ever Oscar gets to them!  (That's another story).

Our first apple haul was close to 40kg.  I had processed around 10kg of those when Nick and Vaughan shook the tree again over the weekend and brought in another (replacement?!) 10kg.    That's 50kg in total - amazing!  Nick has been taking an apple with him to work and we weighed one, just for fun - it was 100g.  By our rough calculations that is at least 500 apples from our tree.  In reality there were probably a lot more than that cos they came in all sizes, including small.  At first we lamented the loss of the fruit from the other tree but 100kg of apples may have been just too much bounty!

Sunday, 21 April 2013

A few sour words ...

I first watched this video nearly a year ago but had been interested in bread-making long before that.   I do make bread but to date my efforts have used dry yeast and generally the dough is mixed in my bargain breadmaker (bought second-hand from eBay for just $10.00). 

Yesterday we visited the Riddells Creek Farmers Market.  As well as our fresh produce acquisitions we purchased a loaf of organic, wood-fired sourdough bread. 

It was a nice loaf - but I've baked bread that I've enjoyed just as much, if not more.  That realisation had me thinking that I really should start the sourdough starter that has been on my agenda for far too many months!  I enlisted Vaughan's aid and we now have our starter (or "mother" as he calls it) doing it's thing quietly in a warm corner of the lounge room.  Hopefully we'll see signs of "life" soon!

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Good Apples!

I pick figs a few at a time, until I have enough to make fig jam (or paste). It seems if I wait too long, the birds get a good feed - and I get nothing!

Harvesting our apples last weekend was a very different affair. The decision was spontaneous, prompted by an observation that the apples looked ripe - and a quick taste-test to confirm. Vaughan climbed up to pick some but Nick used a rake to shake the tree very enthusiastically - and apples rained down. There were so many, it was amazing!

I had thought we might have half-filled one of my green laundry baskets. As it happened, there were enough apples to nearly fill three of those baskets (with more fruit still on the tree). We later used our bathroom scales and the bounty weighed-in at almost 40kg! Not bad for our first haul!

Friday, 19 April 2013

Fig paste!

Soon after publishing my last post, our laptop developed a rather frustrating glitch.  The solution was beyond our DIY efforts, so professional assistance was sought - and even they took a week to solve the issue. 

During my enforced (virtually) technology-free state, I distracted myself with some domestic goddessing!  I had beaten the birds to a kilo of figs and decided to branch out into fig paste production, which was definitely entertaining.

The blended fig mix initially looked rather kakky but transformed during cooking to a much clearer, prettier colour and suitably thick texture.  Although the recipe called for ramekin dishes I don't have any, so used a set of mini cups instead.  As instructed, I left the paste to set overnight and the resultant rounded mounds were quite pleasing when I unmoulded them the next morning. 

Aesthetics aside, the mini-cup mounds seemed far too generous a serve and we halved each - giving 10 quantities in total.   The recipe advised storing in the fridge, wrapped tightly in plastic film but we went a step further and used our vacuum sealer instead.  To facilitate the vacuum process, each half was halved again and then packed together in longer, bon-bon shapes.  The packs looked very professional when completed!  (I've already given one away and hope to hear good reports in due course).

I haven't properly costed the batch.  Of course, the figs were free and the only other ingredients were sugar (about 50c worth) and a very small amount of jam setting agent (cos the recipe stated it was necessary).  It really wasn't any trickier to make than jam and I do wonder at the high price tag for similar items in the deli section at the supermarket. 

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Bags of figs?!

As a recent recruit to fig harvesting it seems there is a very short interval between "that one will be ready tomorrow" and "drat, the birds got it"! 

The birds and I have different views as to ripeness and they pick/peck the ones I want when I am not looking - hence my fig tree is now festooned with plastic shopping bags, as recommended by our landlord.

I'm not sure the birds are greatly scared by the bags but it was cheap and fairly quick to organise. 

Vaughan and I harvested 10 figs this afternoon.  He had already picked one this morning and I have my eye on two that I reckon will be ready tomorrow - if the birds don't get them first!  I'd like to make another batch of the savoury(ish) fig jam (or half-batch if that is all the fruit we manage to collect). 

Sampling the scones!

We sampled another batch of fig jam today.  I made scones specially for the taste testing.  Sometimes I use a lemonade scone recipe but these were the real deal made with butter and milk, done proper!

The double-cream was a serendipitous find in the fridge.  Fancy forgetting that was there, eh?!  (I dolloped it generously with a dessert spoon, in spite of Nick's suggestion that a teaspoon would be more appropriate)!

Oh, and the verdict?  Not bad.  Not bad at all.  A very successful first batch of sweet fig jam - and the scones were pretty good too!

Princess Promenade ...

Princess Fiona is recovering nicely.  She managed to hobble upstairs into the nesting box yesterday to lay an egg.  We didn't see her do it but at the end of the day there were four eggs, one from each chook!

Given she stayed seated most of yesterday, Erin granted her an extra night in the caravan (as it didn't seem she was quite ready to perch with the other birds).  The extra rest did the trick - our Princess is now standing up and limping about a lot more readily.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Princess pampering ...

Something ailed Princess Fiona yesterday.  She was fine when Vaughan let her (and her subjects) out of their bedchamber first thing in the morning. 

However when the royal entourage were relocated to their new quarters, we noticed Her Royal Highness was limping. 

No-one was quite sure what happened - and no, we didn't drop the chook castle on her toe!  There didn't seem much we could do, other than keep her quiet and she was doing a good job of that herself.  Much later in the day though, her condition had worsened and she wasn't standing at all.  Unfortunately, some of the other chooks were picking/pecking on her.  In the circumstances, Erin made a temporary box-bed and brought the Princess inside. 

Dr Google was consulted.  The mood was subdued and there was much worrying by all.  One possibility was that the Princess could be egg-bound.  In those circumstances a warm bath was recommended (and it seemed a bath might help even if the problem was something along the lines of a muscle strain).  Of course, drawing a chook bath was far preferable to massaging her egg-producing parts! 

Princess Fiona seemed happy enough in the laundry tub.  She was wrapped snugly in a towel afterward and spent some time on Erin's lap before being transferred to her box-bed and tucked up warmly in Erin's caravan (with heater running overnight).  Her Royal Highness has not yet made a full recovery but she is chirpier and has been returned to her subjects, under supervision.

If crickets are the cure, she will be restored to good health post-haste - thanks to Vaughan's continued foraging!

Monday, 8 April 2013

Oh, I'm good!

I've been eyeing off "our" fig tree ever since I spotted it during a preliminary inspection of this property. After moving in, I checked the figs daily rather like the witch checking Hansel and Gretel's plumpness!

Seemingly watched figs take as long to ripen as watched kettles need to boil, so after a while I found other amusements. We discovered ripe figs on Good Friday - and baked them as a special dessert.  They looked lovely but I wasn't sure I liked them.

My original plan had been to make fig jam. I had just enough figs on Friday to make a half-batch of a savoury(ish) version which also used some of our home-grown rosemary.

We've tested it since with roast chicken and corned beef, which were both quite tasty. Today's combination was the winner though - Aldi brie cheeses (blue and triple cream) on crackers with a dab of fig jam on top!

Mmmmm, splendid!

I made another batch of fig jam on Saturday, using a traditional sweet recipe.  The colour is clearer and the jars look great but we are yet to sample the finished product.  I need to make some scones and do a proper taste-test! 

Extreme eggs!

Our chookies have now been with us a fortnight - and each week they've gifted 20 eggs! Although we have recorded egg numbers daily since the girls arrived, last week Vaughan diligently weighed each egg and recorded those figures also. 

60-65 grams is the most common weight, so there was much amusement the day that one egg weighed 75 grams - the largest yet - and just as much (if not more) giggling two days later when Vaughan found the smallest egg ever (just 30 grams)!

He has eaten both extreme eggs tonight - fried cos he wanted to compare the yolk/white ratios of each.   (He doesn't actually like to eat egg yolks but on this occasion the smaller egg was entirely eaten, so it must have been good)!

Feathering the fort!

Nick finished the Fox-proof Fowl Fort (FpFF) last night - and we moved our chookies in this morning.  The girls were caught and cuddled across to their new enclosure but we used my garden trolley to shift their coop. 

Typically, in spite of all the new space available for them, they wanted to be right under their house when it was being off-loaded!

I doubt the girls are too worried by aesthetics but some further fort improvements are planned (and perhaps other modifications may become necessary also).  Even as a prototype the FpFF is a vast improvement over chicken wire and star pickets - though hopefully the fox won't be cheering our construction efforts! 

Unfortunately, more fox poo has been identified (some on Erin's doorstep - eeeww!), so we know at least one fox is prowling around and watching our endeavours.  Nick and Vaughan went spotlighting last night and spotted two sets of eye-shine, so we may have two foxes to contend with.  This knowledge prompted placing the fort so that it can be clearly seen from the kitchen and dining areas of the house. 

As to the chicken coop, that has been located pretty much in the middle of the fort, where it looks somewhat ... small!

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Fashioning the "Fox-proof Fowl Fort" (FpFF)!

Given our panels were designed to be used horizontally, Nick needed to grind off the metal loops on what would become the bottom edge (when the panels were in an upright position).  Sparks flew and it looked quite impressive! 

We had purchased two sizes of cable ties - 150mm and 250mm.  The shorter length ties were used to re-attach the aviary mesh to the frames.  Some panels required many ties around the perimeter while others only needed a few. 
As we had twenty fence panels, Nick planned an enclosure that was six panels long and four panels wide.  The larger cable ties were used to join the panels in place - about five or six ties per junction.

Nick did most of the work but we all helped at different stages. 

Some of the last panels required patching of larger holes or mending of split mesh.  Fortunately we had some small pieces of similar mesh on-site and could use that for these repairs.

I've been researching the recommended space requirements for healthy chickens.  Some information is quite detailed, even giving lengths of perch-space per bird!  Generally though the consensus is that the more space chookies have, the happier they will be.   Five square metres per chook is deemed "adequate" by the Poultry Cooperative Research Centre.  When finished, the area of the Fox-proof Fowl Fort (FpFF) will be a little over 34 square metres, which would be suitable for six or seven chooks - so our four girls should have plenty of room!

The fencing panel!

You might be wondering what kind of gold-plated chook fencing we purchased that tallied nearly $600.00.  Good question!

The day the girls arrived we headed into Bunnings for a 10 metre roll of 120cm chicken wire, four star pickets, some fencing staples (to attach the wire to the pickets) - and a gadget to assist hammering the pickets into the ground.  That lot was $87.01 and probably one of the cheapest setups we could configure at short notice. 

We had previously purchased a small chicken coop from eBay.  (By Nick's reckoning, it features as a cat expense so isn't included in the chicken keeping costs)!  Accounting methods aside, the former cat coop was only intended to house two chickens at most (as a stand-alone unit) and was specifically noted not to be fox-proof.  Our chookies are locked into the top roosting chamber overnight, with the coop door closed.  Although a fox has been sniffing around, we believe they are safe when tucked up for the evening (albeit somewhat cosy).  It is their daytime security that is more of an issue.

We've been looking at fencing options and did some preliminary costings.  It seemed a more convenient alternative was to buy fencing panels, so we set off to acquire some.  Although we initially looked at the large format used around building sites, sense prevailed and we instead chose smaller units that (just) fit on our trailer!

The frames are galvanised with aviary mesh inserts - far superior to chicken wire and star pickets!  Our panels were advertised as being ex-hire with some minor damage, so afterwards we bought a swag of cable ties and some tie-wire to make the necessary repairs.  Cable ties aren't cheap but they are easy to work with and that definitely appealed!

When used as designed, the panels are 2 metres long and 1.2 metres high.  For our purposes they were stood on end (so the measurements are transposed).  Effectively we have 24 metres of 2 metre-high fencing for a little over $480.00. 

Obviously some work is necessary to transform our panels into what has been dubbed the "fox-proof fowl fort" but not nearly as much effort as would be required if building a fence entirely from raw materials.  Some people buy convenience food - we buy convenience fencing!

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Free chooks aren't cheep!

We love our chookies - although it is only Vaughan who insists on giving them "cuddle-ups"!  I am not sure that they enjoy the physical affection but they do tend to crowd round when they see the Young Master, probably cos they associate him with crickets!

The girls gifted us 20 eggs in their first week and seem set for a similar effort as their second week draws to a close.  When they arrived we bought some pet hay and a small bag of pellets from one of the local pet supply shops - as an interim measure, cos we hadn't done much preparation beforehand.

Yesterday we bought 20 kilos of organic grain mix from a local farm and a bale of straw from a livestock supply company.  Both should last well over a month, which would equate to around $1.00 a day for our girls' food and bedding, praps less when the actual figures are known.

Keeping them safe is proving far more expensive!  To date the fencing purchases tally $570.00 (and we are not yet done) - that's $142.50 per chook, so far!!  The old cliché of not being able to put a price on happiness does ring very true though.  We are certainly a much happier Hamby family since being gifted the chookies!

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Weighing in ...

We're a curious bunch here, in that we like to know about things (though some would argue the term could be applied equally aptly for other reasons)! 

Our chookies laid three eggs on their first full day with us - and another three the day after.  It seemed that one girl was slacking, so Vaughan and I weighed those six eggs to see if there was a pattern in terms of size and weight.  We thought there were some similarities but Nick wasn't convinced of our "proof"!

The girls gifted us four eggs on Good Friday (now eaten) and another four on Easter Monday.  Vaughan is already recording the number of eggs received each day and this week we'll attempt to record all the weights also.  So far the weight range is from 55 to 65 grams, though on their first day one of the girls laid an egg that was a little over 70 grams.  (Something I read recently stated that as chooks aged, they laid larger eggs). 

It's hard work weighing eggs, Vaughan had a huge chunk of chocolate to sustain him during the process - and needed to stuff it into his mouth so both hands were free!

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Scat, fox!

Icky, sticky, (disgustingly) stinky fox poo!
When Erin checked the chookies yesterday, she noticed some unusual poo by the wire. Although some people laugh at my "Tracks, Scats and Other Traces" book, it proved very useful on this occasion and we all agree the poo in question belongs to a fox. 

There was more poo this morning (but someone stepped in it before I could take a photo!) - and the odd sounds heard last night were a fox's territorial calls

Nick is currently on annual leave and we had already been researching more permanent, fox-proof housing for our girls as a holiday project.  Given the fox scats, we will fast-track our efforts!


Disclaimer:  no jeans were harmed in this feeding frenzy!
During our Easter egg hunt on Sunday morning, we found a pair of Nick's jeans that had been blown off the washing line. Many millipedes and slaters had taken refuge beneath. Quite a few remained on the jeans, so Erin raced off to the chicken run and tossed in the denim - and the delicacies!

Another pair of Nick's jeans had fallen off the line yesterday, so the chookies scored again!!

It is interesting to note the girls obviously prefer slaters over millipedes but they are not alone in that!

Monday, 1 April 2013

Easter Eggs!

We've had a lovely Easter.  So many good things happened, including Vaughan's 8th birthday on Easter Sunday.  One of his big sisters arrived on Good Friday for an impromptu Easter/Birthday visit - the same day that we received four eggs from our chookies (for the first time ever)!  They laid another four today (Easter Monday) on the anniversary of their arrival, so there has been speculation that they were getting into the Easter spirit - or that the failed hot cross buns really agreed with them!
Our chookies laid 20 eggs during their first week with us - a very impressive effort, indeed! We ate some of their eggs yesterday for our breakfast - carefully coloured by way of a special morning science experiment in celebration of Easter and Vaughan's birthday.  (You can see how yellow the yolks are in the pic at right).

Vaughan checks for eggs at least several times a day.  He discovered some extra-special eggs yesterday morning - it seems the Easter Bunny has a sense of humour!