Traumatic times for chickens!

Winter is a tricky time for chickens. My Hen Pal, Julia, has been telling me all about their woes! None of her five hens laid an egg from mid-November until mid-January – a combination of short daylight hours, dismal weather and their old age.

Rather sweetly, when we had our first really sunny January day, one of the hens heaved out a very weird offering. When Julia first brought it in at teatime, it was whole, but with a patchy, sandy texture, and a curious bump on one end.

By the following morning, the sub-standard eggshell finish had cracked in the warmth of the house and the whole thing looked rather sorry for itself, as you can see in the photo.

Up on Dartmoor where Julia lives, they had quite a covering of snow for almost a week. The chickens refused to come out of their coop unless a patch of earth had been scraped clear. They would then proceed, cautiously, to come outside and eat, drink and scratch around normally, but staying on the cleared area. One brave one did trot across the snow, but then made a point of showing how cold her feet were!

Strangely, the snow brought on even more eggs, possibly because of the amount of reflected light, and they have been producing one egg a day quite regularly for the rest of January.

Who knows how chickens’ minds work? Well, who’d want to, frankly, but these eggy offerings can be taken as a sign that the days are lengthening and that spring is definitely on the way!

 

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Ducklings ahead!

We are fortunate enough to have ducklings in our stream most years – last year I believe there were 10 that waddled through our garden and, at one point, sat outside our French windows and waited patiently while their Mum pecked on the glass with her beak, presumably to speed up the lunch service!

Let’s hope we are as lucky this year in the number of our quacking visitors – it’s one of my biggest joys in life, having the stream running through our garden and the wildlife it encourages (OK maybe not the water rats … they can stay away!).

This image of ducklings was painted for us by Jayne Netley Mayhew as part of her Spring decoupage collection. The minute I saw it, I knew I would love making cards with it.

The backgrounds here are from Holly Pond Hill CD and then an embossed square of pale green card. Using embossing folders is a favourite technique of mine – it adds texture, interest and I have fun embossing them!

The decoupage can be as shallow or as deep as you like – this has been done with just the smallest amounts of Pinflair glue gel to build it up, but it’s easy to use large blobs and get a much more pronounced 3D effect – depends what you want for the finished look!

I’ll let you know how many ducklings come and live in the garden temporarily this year!

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Looking good in winter…

Animals have got it right when it comes to winter – curl up and hibernate for a few months (having gorged yourself first!) or keep nice and warm in your snug-fitting fur coat. Sadly for us poor old humans, we just have to brave the elements. So we end up with chapped lips, dry skin, dull hair and numerous other problems. But don’t despair, with a little bit of ingenuity we can perk ourselves up no end.

Making a rich moisturiser out of natural ingredients is a great way to give your skin a treat.

Devon Cider Apple Cream

  • 500g (1lb) white vegetable fat
  • 500g (1lb) apples (weight after being peeled and cored)
  • 120ml rose water
  • A few drops of alcoholic tincture of benzoin (preservative)

This is not a particularly sophisticated cream but, believe me, it works excellently. It also makes a good hand cream.

Melt the vegetable fat in a pan over a low heat. Put the prepared apples in a food processor or blender and purée totally Add the apple juice and pulp to the fat and stir together well. Remove from the heat and add the rose water and benzoin. Strain immediately, put into screw-top jars and keep in the fridge. Massage the cream into face and neck – and give you hands a treat at the same time!

Sunflower & Sea Salt Body Rub

  • Small amount of sunflower oil
  • Sea salt

This is ideal for tired winter skin. It also works well if you substitute granulated sugar for the sea salt.

Treat your body in sections. First, apply a little sunflower oil to soften and dampen the skin, then take a handful of sea salt and rub well into the area you have prepared. This will slough off any dead skin cells and leave your skin glowing and awake. Wash off the oil and salt mix with warm water – the easiest way is in the shower.

 

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A warming winter soup

Whatever did we do before the butternut squash? This rich, creamy vegetable is so versatile I can’t remember life before it arrived on the scene and yet it is a relatively recent addition to our shopping lists in this country. Roasted, toasted, puréed or mashed its lovely golden colour and rich taste make it a very valuable veg.

Butternut squash soup is an absolute winner for me as it tastes rich and creamy – yet contains no cream or milk and can be a very healthy meal.

To make the soup:

  • 1 butternut squash
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves of garlic, crushed
  • 1 large potato, peeled and diced
  • 2 tbl spoon of olive oil
  • A knob of butter
  • 1 pint of vegetable stock
  • 3 tsp ground cumin
  • Season to taste
  1. Peel the butternut squash. Discard the pulp in the centre and chop the remaining flesh into chunks.
  2. Heat the oil in a large saucepan, add the onion, butternut squash and potato and the butter and cook until brown and caramelised.
  3. As the mixture starts to caramelise, add the garlic, taking care not to let it catch and burn, and the cumin.
  4. Pour in the stock and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove from the heat, leave to cool slightly and then blend using a food processor or one of those really useful hand blenders.

This makes a thick soup that you may want to dilute more with some water. If I’m going to freeze it (and it freezes very well) I leave it like this to save space and dilute it when I defrost it.

Variations on a theme…

I’ve also developed some variations on the above recipe. Adding a leek or two is a nice change, but a current favourite is adding a sweet potato instead of the ordinary potato. This makes for an even more wonderful colour and lovely flavour.

Another option that I am currently mad about is adding 2 tsp of smoked paprika and just one of cumin. This adds a wonderful smoky warmth and quite transforms the soup.

If you serve this as a starter then a swirl of cream or dollop of crème fraîche looks nice, or some artistically ‘dribbled’ pesto is good too!

 

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Local food producers: The South Devon Chilli Farm

I am fortunate to live in a county rich in locally grown and produced foods. Devon is unique in England in having a coastline on both its northern and southern edges and it’s an area where farming livestock is still an important part of the economy. We are also blessed with lots of artisan cheese makers, bakers and vintners, our climate being suited to all sorts of exciting foody businesses. Through my blog I’m going to take the opportunity to introduce you to some of our local producers and I hope you will be inspired to try their produce and their recipes!

The South Devon Chilli Farm

Admittedly, the words ‘Devon’ and ‘chilli’ don’t immediately go together, but a thriving and nationally-known, chilli farm is situated about 20 miles away from my home in picturesque south Devon!

I visited it with my chilli-mad son-in-law a few years ago and was amazed at the variety of chillies grown and the array of colours and sizes… and heat!

The South Devon Chilli Farm has been growing chillies on an increasingly large scale since 2003. It has expanded a lot over the years and now grows over 10,000 chilli plants each year and harvests tonnes of fresh chillies. Most of the chillies are used in their range of chilli sauces, preserves and chilli chocolate.

Their website is very informative and includes detailed tips on growing chillies yourself and cooking with them. It also has a selection of recipes. Here’s a quick one you might like to try:

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Piri-Piri Marinade

The marinade can be made two to three days before using.

  • 200ml lemon juice
  • 200ml rapeseed oil
  • 4 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 10 dried Piri Piri , de-stalked and crushed 
  • 2 tsp dried oregano
  • 1 tsp dried thyme
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp sea salt

Simply whisk the ingredients together in a bowl.

This marinade can be used to make Piri-Piri chicken (also on the website), or cooked for 10 minutes and brushed onto hot corn on the cob, drizzled over grilled chicken, or used as a dunking sauce for bread. Yum yum!

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Chilli seeds are sown in February each year and the fruits harvested from July to November. The South Devon Chilli Farm’s main site is 10 acres of land with a production barn just outside the village of Loddiswell. This is open to visitors all year, with a small shop and, in summer, a show tunnel to display the many colourful shapes and sizes of chilli. Believe me, it’s well worth a visit!

When we went, we wandered among the fruiting chilli plants, and tried their sauces and preserves and, of course, their amazing dark chilli chocolate made on the farm! We left laden down with fresh chillies, chilli seedlings, plants, seeds and chocolate, and a very happy son-in-law!

Have a look at the South Devon Chilli Farm website where you will find all sorts of interesting facts about. You can also order their products online.

PS. Just in case you get carried away – remember how to combat the burn… The best antidote to heat is either patience, or a dairy product such as milk or yoghurt. Drinking beer is one of the worst things you can do, as the alcohol washes the heat further into your taste buds!

 

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