lessons from the chicken house

Here's a post from the draft files.  Written at the beginning of September last year, the roosters, are a distant memory now. Although the hens are still laying like the clappers like they do every spring, and with a weather forecast today of 10 degrees, feeling wistful for warmer weather is as relevant today as it was last September.... 

Feeling a little wistful for warmer weather and dreaming of summer apricots, today I needed to bake something nostalgic. Using all the eggs our girls our  laying right now.    

Things are a little sad at the chicken house, as we lost two of our roosters this week.  Spike, our lovely handsome Barnevelder rooster and his son,  who had no name and was shunned to live on the outer, are now both gone.  Mauled to death by a dog.  And while yes, there is a sense of relief that the early morning crowing has stopped, I can't help but think what a dreadful way for the poor creatures to die.    

Then there is Charlotte, my very first Barnevelder, the oldest hen in the flock who now, at the grand old age of seven years old, is feeble and weak. Charlotte's always had trouble with her legs, a few wobbly spells, but she always recovered with some confinement and rest. But now she can't walk.   She seems happy in herself, still eating and getting up when she has to, but still, I wonder what to do. Let nature take it's course or.....

Despite my feelings of grief over the roosters, the hens are laying like the clappers and we're enjoying the bounty of at least eight eggs a day.  We fry them for breakfast, make Spanish tortillas for tea, and bake plenty of cakes.  Like this Victoria sponge, filled with a jar of last summer's apricot jam and plenty of billowy whipped cream.

This morning, as I fed the hens, I was greeted by the most lovely of surprises, a mother hen with two little chicks, so sweet and fluffy. So lovely to see new life and along with the cake cheered us up no end.     

Lessons learned today.   Life goes on in the chicken house and cake makes everything better. 

Victoria Sponge

This is my go to cake recipe, hands down. I make it all the time and I love it because you don't need a recipe. The weight of your eggs determines the weight of your other ingredients.   You can vary the flavor by exchanging fresh fruit filling for jam, or any berries with cream would be delicious. And for a lemon cake use lemon zest instead of vanilla in the cake batter.

Three large eggs
Butter, softened
Castor sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
Self raising flour

6 tablespoons of jam
250ml of cream, whipped to soft peaks

Take three eggs and weigh them in their shells. This weight will be the weight you use of sugar, butter and flour as well.

Preheat oven to 180C. Grease and line two 20cm sandwich tins.

Beat sugar, butter and vanilla in a stand mixer until creamy and fluffy.

Add eggs, one at time, beating well after each one, about 20 seconds.

Slowly flour, a third at time until well incorporated.

You may need a splash of milk here to soften the batter.

Divide the mix between the cake tins, place into the oven and bake for about 20 minutes until risen and golden brown.

The cakes should spring back when gently pushed in the middle.

When ready, remove from the oven and allow to cool for 5 minutes in the tin, before turning out onto a wire rack and cooling completely.

Spread the jam onto one cake and top with the cream. Sandwich the cakes together and dust with icing sugar.

No More Cats

It's quiet here.

Like an abandoned village. Or a remote windswept paddock that nobody visits. But I don't mind. That's why I like it.

It's calm and soothing, away from the noise and distraction.

So here I shall be, clearing my thoughts. Writing some words that I might use later. Or perhaps not.
That's really not the point. It's somewhere to keep track of my thoughts, the words and ideas, that really are feeling a little smothered of late.

Too much work, too much noise. Too many other pretty things to look at.

My words feel smothered and weak. I try to get them up and moving about. Set them free.
C'mon! Let's go out words, stretch our legs, write some words I say.  But my writing muscle feels feeble and weak.  "No, not today"  that writing muscle tells me, "let's scroll Facebook for cats instead"

"Okay! Yes let's do that!"  I usually say. But it won't do. Not any more. I need to get going. Move around, play with words. I love it when my brain is full of words just wanting to get out. But now my brain is full of mush and pictures of cats.  How can I write anything with a brain full of mush and stupid cat memes?

So here I will be writing to you, anybody? Trying to write a little bit more so I can get going again.  I'll find those words, grow them, nurture them, and pull them into line.

Maybe I'll press the publish button. Or maybe I'll press the save button, and keep these little thoughts filed away as drafts.  Like a savings account. For words I like.

The salt makers of Little Swanport :: Tasman Sea Salt


When you stand on the windswept shores of Great Oyster Bay on Tasmania's east coast, where lush green pastures meet white sandy beaches and the crystal clear blue waters beyond, you know you're in a very special place. You breath deep and fill your lungs with the fresh briny air and everything seems right with the world.  Then you sigh and wish you could take that feeling away with you in your pocket.  But that's exactly what I did.   In a little match box filled with Tasman Sea Salt

The seas around Tasmania are some of the cleanest and nutrient rich waters in the world, and it seemed obvious to Alice Laing and Chris Manson that it would make a very fine sea salt.  So that's what set out to do. Quit their London jobs, headed to the Tasmanian east coast and figured out a clever way to transform a little piece of the Tasmanian ocean magically into tasty white crystals.

Working with a Tasmanian engineering company Alice and Chris created an efficient and environmentally friendly process that combines age old salt making traditions with clean energy technology to produce delicious sea salt flakes. The process is simple, just evaporated sea water that leaves flaky crystals of salt. The only waste product is fresh water which they collect and use to wash down the plant and make the odd cup of tea in the morning. 

Green credentials aside, it's the incredible depth of flavour that has chefs and food lovers alike raving.  Rich in potassium with lower levels of sodium than many other salts, it contains all the trace elements you'll find in Tassie's pristine waters. So that when you put those white crystals on your tongue, you're instantly transported back to the shores of Little Swanport.

When I met Alice and Chris at a recent visit to their salt works, I couldn't help but love their story, (especially the bit about how they met at Glastonbury). It's a true reflection of the vibrant and creative food industry in Tasmania and it ticks all the food lovers boxes for me, innovative, green and most importantly a delicious product.

People who produce food, follow their dreams and do great things are always inspiring to me.   They are the people I want to support by buying their products and giving them a shoutout whenever I can.   So, to help spread the salty word on this special Tasmanian product I'm hosting a giveaway so you can have the chance to taste the Tasmanian seaside on your morning's eggs.

Included in this box of salty goodies is:

2 x 250g boxes of Tasman Sea Salt
1 x copy of the cook book Tasmania's Table 
1 x 100 g block of Monsieur Truffle Dark chocolate with Tasman Sea Salt
1 x 45g jar of Tasmanian Truffled Sea Salt
1 x Tasmanian Pop Corn Company pack

Awesome right!?
To enter, simply leave a comment.
Competition closes 5pm Friday 22 July 2016.
Open to Australian residents only.

Read more about their story here and the fascinating (if not gruesome) history of salt works in Tasmania.

This is not a sponsored post - I only feature products that I love and I think you will too.

UPDATE:  The competition has closed. Winners were picked by a random number generator. Congratulations Melissa, Kylie  and Leanne

Thank you to all those who entered! 

Cinnamon Crackle Biscuits

Jack arrived last night and left a blanket in his wake as thick as you like in the garden. Frost settled softly on ground, on the leaves, on the car and the chicken's drinking water was sealed with a hefty layer of ice.  Brisk you might say.

It was good timing too, with most of winter's firewood stacked on the weekend, the garlic planted and the chook house cleaned and refreshed with plenty of dry straw, we are, surprisingly, ready for winter.

Inside the house, the shelves are filled with dozens of bottles of passata, preserved apricots (first time ever) preserved peaches and plums. There are bottles of sloe gin, damson gin and medlar vodka silently maturing away, hidden in dark corners away from temptation, (but we've finished summer's blackcurrant cassis already I'm afraid). And as always there is jam, tons and tons of jam, the output of summer's little jam factory.

Now while this vision may present the illusion of smug domestic accomplishment, let me assure you that beyond the kitchen and the above mentioned, my life is disorganised chaos. Truly. Laundry piled high, dust bunnies in the corners, unread school notes and boxes of outgrown clothes waiting to be taken to the opshop that have been sitting by the back door a little too long.

Sometimes I think to myself, "Ba! housework, 'tis not important" and that works for a little while, but to be honest, I don't believe it for very long and the urge to keep house calls.   But before the housework gets done there is the state of the garden to consider, sure I've got the raised beds (relatively) under control with garlic, board beans, cima di rapa, english spinach and raddiccio all coming along nicely, but that's where the cheery story ends.  The rest is desperate for attention. Edges need trimming, trees staked and pruned, beds weeded and remulched and the rest of those winter jobs that a more enthusiastic gardener would relish.

Well, given the chilly state outside, and the cosy state of the kitchen, indoors is where you'll find me today.   For while there are chores to be done, I find nothing better than a good bout of procrastibaking is in order.

If you'd like to join me, there is plenty of tea and batch of these delicious warm biscuits waiting just for you.

Cinnamon Crackle Biscuits

These easy biscuits are crunchy on the outside with a lightly chewy centre and an irresistible gingery treacle flavour. You do need to drag out your stand mixer, but I feel if you're avoiding heavy gardening duties it's the least you can do.

125g softened butter
150g brown sugar
2 tbs golden syrup
1 egg
300g self raising flour
1 tsp bi-carb soda
2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
white sugar, for dipping

Preheat oven to 180C and line a baking tray with baking paper.

In a stand mixer, cream the butter, sugar and golden syrup until light and fluffy.

Add the egg and beat until well combined. It may curdle but don't worry.

In a large bowl, sift together the flour, bi-carb soda and spices.

Add flour mix to butter mixture and beat until just combined. The dough will be quite stiff.

Roll heaped teaspoonfuls of the mixture into balls. Dip the topside into the sugar.

Place on the baking tray, sugar side up and flatten slightly with your finger tips.

Sprinkle the biscuits with a few drops of water to give them a crackle effect.

Bake for about 15 minutes or until golden. Put the kettle on and marvel at a job well done.

Wonder what else you can bake.

Crabapples hedgerows and a book

Could I plant my own hedgerow?

That's what I thought to myself as I looked at a wild and unkempt space in the garden. It's a thin piece of land, on the boundary, running along the vegetable patch and is full of weeds like blackberry, nettles and wild potatoes. In my mind I can picture a rambling, dense row of trees that I could tenderly nurture myself.  I would plant crabapples, damsons and sloes, a rosehip, a medlar or two and even a quince.

T'would take a bit of work in the first few years, to prepare the ground before planting, protect the little trees from possums, and make sure they had plenty to drink until the hedgerow was established. But after a few years, it'd be marvellous not to have to scramble down snakey ditches on scarily busy highways to score that lovely wild fruit. It would be right there in my garden. And I dream of all the deliciousness I could preserve with the bounty.

Roadside scrambling aside, I did get a decent haul of crabapples from the garden this year, at least 10 kilos off my crooked little tree. It was so prolific, there was enough fruit for the parrots to feast on as well as enough for me, which is a very rare occurrence around here.

What to do with all the crabapples, you ask? I could pickle them I suppose, preserve some in syrup, but I just so happen to I have a copy of this new beautiful new book, Not Just Jam.  A book that I had the pleasure of not only styling, but I actually wrote a lot of the recipes too, so you might say I co-authored it, or perhaps you might say I was the recipe developer. Either way, I'm as equally thrilled to have my name on the title page, and to have worked on such a gorgeous book.

Just as the title suggests, there are not just jam recipes, but pickles and sauces too. And jellies.  Which brings me to the crabapples, patiently waiting to be turned into jelly.  Crabapples make the best jelly, as they're so high in pectin it sets really easily, so its not too sweet, and is the most rosiest of pinks. It can be used like jam, but I like spoonful on the side of my plate with roast pork, or roast lamb to cut through the riches, a bit like apple sauce but fancier.

You can find the recipe for crab apple jelly here, along with a few others from the book. In the meantime, I'm off out to the garden to measure that space, to see if I really could plant my own hedgerow.

The last of the summer peaches.

With the foggy mornings we've been having this week, you think I'd be tempted to embrace an autumn themed menu with apples and quinces, pot roasts and mashed potatoes.  But I'm not ready for autumn just yet.  Here in the valley, March is harvest time, the days are still warm, and we're bursting with the best of the late summer produce. The tomatoes are still coming thick and fast, there are inky dark plums, paper skinned tomatillos, autumn raspberries and the last of the summer peaches.

Every surface in the kitchen is filled with boxes of produce waiting to process. Tomatoes into sauce, plums into jam, and there is also half a cow from my neighbour, waiting to be turned into sausages.  Currently distributed across three boxes sitting on the table, the cow will have to sit there until I find some space, any space, in the fridge, in the freezer or in the beer fridge and put it aside until sausage day.

Though I ought to be content with this lot, I just can't say no to another box of produce, thinking somehow I'll figure out a way to make the time and space for it to fit.  Since it is a good ten months of only eating apples ahead before the stone fruit return, I didn't hesitate to buy another 20kg of summer's last peach, the O Henry.  A giant, fat slipstone that's perfect for bottling and one of the very last peaches to ripen, around mid March, the O Henry gets all that summer sunshine to grow and develop a big luscious flavour.

I also couldn't resist a bag of Golden Queens, a deep yellow peach that are just well, peachy. They are the type that are put into tins, so they have a lovely nostalgic flavour for me, as I grew up eating tinned peaches. However with all those O'Henry's bottled on the shelf, I think we'll eat the Golden Queens now, roasted with butter and brown sugar and poured over hot crispy waffles.

There's a lot of juggling here in the kitchen at this time of year, rotating space on the cooker for the preserving pot, the giant vat of tomato sauce and stewing plums for porridge, juggling fridge space, bench space, then shelf space for the jewel filled jars.  But it's all so worth it, when the pantry shelves are full and we have plenty of delicious things to eat over the winter.

When all the the boxes are emptied and the jars are filled, and there's finally space in the fridge, that's when I'll feel ready for autumn. That's when I can turn my attention to the quinces and apples. That is unless the sweet corn shows up.

PS. A note re the image, we have shockingly slow internet right now, and that one image took 45 minutes to upload. Yes it's roasted plums with butter and brown sugar, there's not a peach insight, despite the title of this post. But I hope you get the picture anyway.