Goodbye Girls…

Goldfinger (black with gold highlights) the rooster with his charges.

Goldfinger (black with gold highlights) the rooster with his charges.

It was a cold day in December (in many ways) when my friends came to take the chickens away to their farm in the next county. They are good folks, so when I called them at Highgate Farms up in Marshall to ask if they could add my girls to their egg flock, they said yes right away. We all thought it would ease the transition if the hens arrived at their new home while the resident girls were asleep. So down the mountain just after dusk came Melissa and John in their beautiful old bio-diesel Mercedes.

I had already said my tearful goodbyes and tried to remain calm. I collected Mattie, Buffy, Flopsy and Mopsy one by one from the perch where they slept peacefully and deposited them into carrier boxes for the ride to their new home. Collecting Opal, the tree-sleeping Sumatra hen was another story, but with a little help from a ladder they were all in the trunk of the car and heading off into the night. I can’t say thanks to John and Melissa enough times for providing them with a good home. It makes me feel a tiny bit better; but just a tiny bit. IMG_2123

I’ll keep the why part of the story short since it’s all negative and we don’t want to dwell on it. Suffice it to say, we have a neighbor who is not neighborly, the kind you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. And that’s all you’ll hear about that.

Buffy checks out the harvest. She's not a fan of kale or cabbage but love tomatoes and cucumbers.

Buffy checks out the harvest. She’s not a fan of kale or cabbage but love tomatoes and cucumbers.

The sadness I feel has surprised me. Even after a month, I miss my girls and our rituals terribly. I still expect them to be clamoring for their afternoon treats when I open the door. As my sister said, I cried lots of big fat chicken tears! But don’t worry, I haven’t given up chickens for good. We still have the hen palace and all the gear that goes with it. One day we’ll move farther out into the country and have 10 acres or more; a place where people and chickens can have a little freedom!

Large, medium and small eggs laid by Ruby, Mattie and Baby respectively.

Large, medium and small eggs laid by Ruby, Mattie and Baby respectively.

That dream is down the road a ways, but I’ll keep you posted. It’s good to have something to look forward to while I’m driving to the winter tailgate market to BUY EGGS THAT COME FROM CHICKENS I’VE NEVER EVEN MET!

Thanks for listening to my sad story. I’ll be back soon with a recipe to cheer us all up. This picture should help too!

iPhoto Library

 

 

 

Ramps!

Ramps are a plant that rural folk have collected in the east down to the Southern Appalachians and parts of the Midwest for many generations. I imagine after a long cold winter with few fresh vegetables, and last summer’s home-canned vegetables nearly gone, this pungent onion/garlic green would taste awfully good. As a bonus, ramps are loaded with vitamin C. The ramp season is short since they grow in the spring in deciduous forests before the leaves come out. After just a few weeks, in late April or thereabouts here in the North Carolina mountains, leaf growth blocks the sun and the ramps die back for another year.

Fresh ramp bunches

Fresh ramp bunches

So what are ramps? Members of the lily family, they are alliums along with chives, onions, garlic and leeks. They have a small white bulb, burgundy stems at ground level and wide, soft, green leaves above that are reminiscent of lily of the valley leaves. You will know you’ve got a ramp by the pungent aroma that surrounds it when you pull it up.

Ramps grow in clumps and return year after year where foragers leave a healthy supply in the ground. Now that these little jewels are trendy and served at top restaurants in NYC and elsewhere, there are some shortages in the Northeast where foragers are harvesting every last ramp to sell. Kind of like killing the goose who laid the golden eggs.

Clean ramps

Clean ramps

The ones I cooked today came from the back of a pickup on the road side. They were harvested the day before at about 5,000 feet of elevation. The fellows who dug them said they harvested as many as they could before the hard frost fell the night before. We chatted as he wrapped my bunches to keep the root dirt from falling off in the car. I asked who was buying ramps these days. He lamented that most newcomers to the mountains don’t know about ramps so some days are busy and some are slow. He seemed happy that I knew what they were. In the car, the ramp aroma was heady and wonderful.

At home, I shook off some of the dirt and carefully rinsed off the rest. By this time, the garlicky smell was filling the house. After patting the ramps dry, I snipped the roots off and cut off the bulbs. The bulbs went into the pan where my husband had just cooked a couple of thick local pork chops. I splashed in a little white wine and let it cook off. When the bulbs were tender, I added the ramp stem and leaves, salt and pepper and a few tablespoons of water and cooked until the leaves wilted and the water disappeared. The key is to stop cooking the leaves before they exude an okra-like slime. The whole cooking process took only 7-8 minutes; just long enough for the chops to rest.

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We’re big veggie eaters so in addition to the pork chops and ramps, we had a chopped salad with all kinds of things from the frig and garden tossed with sherry vinegar and olive oil. This dinner truly tasted like spring!

The Egg Skelter

I am the proud owner of an egg skelter.  Hens who lay more eggs than you can use each day or two are a good thing, but you need to use the oldest eggs first.  They keep on the countertop for a good while, but the first-in-first-out inventory method is definitely the way to go.

I try to remember to pencil dates on the eggs as they arrive, but sometimes I forget. Even if you remember, it seems that the oldest eggs will find the bottom of the bowl and stay there forever, covered up by new eggs.

My wedgewood blue egg skelter; all the way from the UK!

My wedgewood blue egg skelter; all the way from the UK!

Thank goodness some clever person in England invented the egg skelter.  You put the new eggs at the highest vacant spot on the spiral and pluck the oldest eggs from the bottom of the slide.  You can’t really roll them from the top and let them crash into each other unless you want scrambled eggs on the counter, but it’s still fun.  Great name and you get to show off your home-grown eggs!

I saw a picture of an egg skelter in a magazine recently and knew it would solve my inventory issues.  Web and Ebay searches only turned up egg skelters on UK sites so I sprang for the extra shipping.  It’s very British that the egg skelter comes in colors that match Agas, the venerable stove that warms many a cozy English country kitchen.  I guess people who have Agas have hens.  My skelter is wedgewood blue and I wouldn’t mind having a matching Aga next to it!

AGAc-1.

The helter skelter; a popular ride at British amusement parks.

The helter skelter; a popular ride at British amusement parks.

I am a word fanatic, so I had to know why the holder is called a skelter. It makes me think of helter skelter meaning a mess or chaos, but it also reminds me of the Beatle song on the White Album.

In case you don’t know, the helter skelter in the song is a ride that appeared in British amusement parks around 1906.  It’s a medieval castle tower with a spiral slide around the outside. The egg holder does follow the same design.

Take a look at those Beatle lyrics if didn’t know about the ride. You’ll find they have new meaning! There’s a link below.

History lesson over, the Aga wedgewood blue egg skelter sits on my kitchen counter now and prevents egg chaos beautifully!

http://www.lyrics007.com/The%20Beatles%20Lyrics/Helter%20Skelter%20Lyrics.html

P.S. I just did another search and see that Manna Pro (a farm supply site) now sells an egg skelter in the U.S.  Please note that it only comes in cream, silver and red.  If you’re trying to match your Aga, you will have to go international.

 

Morning Ruckus!

A big ruckus in the yard this morning brought me running.  I thought I heard a dog barking and that rarely bodes well for free range hens!  Boy, was I wrong.  The barking was coming from Ruby, our golden comet hen.  She was loudly defending her breakfast against attack by an aggressive crow.  I arrived just in time to see the crow back away and take off.  Three cheers for Ruby!

Meet Ruby the heart-breaker.
Meet Ruby the heart-breaker. She’s a great layer and was born with that crooked tail. She prides herself on being an individual. The flattened stokes asters in the background are a favorite spot for Ruby to take an afternoon nap in summer. 

Here’s another Ruby story.  We’d had her for a few months when we realized that one of our “hens” was a rooster.  Before the rooster matured, Ruby was all mine.  She hung out with me when I was in the garden and did a little subservience dance when she wanted me to pick her up.  She’d flatten herself a bit, lower her head and stomp her feet. I’d pick her up and we’d visit until she was ready to join the flock again.  Both of us enjoyed this daily ritual.

Then Big Bird, the rooster, grew up and started looking like a real man.  Right after that, Ruby dumped me.  She started dancing for Big Bird and I was persona non grata.  Our cuddling days were over.  If I needed to pick her up to check her for mites or anything else, I had to pluck her off her roost in the coop under cover of darkness.  I was broken-hearted but glad to see her so happy with her fellow.

Since Big Bird passed away a few weeks ago, Ruby has come back to me.  Sometimes she dances for me twice a day!  It’s like old times.  I guess some girls just need an alpha figure in their lives.  I’m enjoying our chat sessions, but I know they are fleeting.  We’ll get a new rooster this spring and once again Ruby will tolerate me only because I happen to show up each morning with the organic feed and dried mealworms that she loves.  She’ll eat out of my hand if I bring a special afternoon snack, like a banana or peach, but there won’t be any cuddles.

I am already steeling myself for the blow.  Maybe one of the chicks we are hand-raising will value me the way Ruby used to.  A girl can dream, can’t she?