Saturday, October 17, 2009

The basics to jam making - heirloom skill

JAM - it is a really thing.  Sometimes we forget how good a simple peice of toast and jam can taste.  We rush out to our cars to grab some fast greasy food on the way to work when we could easily be eating something better for us.

Jam you make at home is better not just because it taste better - truth be told, there is some pretty goof commerical jam out there.  But it is better because we made it. That simple thing defines it and makes it worth the tiny effort needed to make it by hand

To make jam you need fresh fruit.  Yes, you can make it with frozen- but why bother. 

You will need the following items


1) Large pot to boil water in.

2) Good sharp knive

3) canning jars

4) jar lifter

5) lid magnet

6) wide funnel

7) long spoon for stirring

8) Ladle for ladling into the jars

Always use fresh lids, you can reuse the rings but the lids need to be new - the gaskets get old and useless.
Always boil the jars and lids for at least 10 minutes to sterilize
Wipe the rims to make sure you get a good clean fit

Friday, October 16, 2009

Sharing our world - the cat and I add chickens to the homestead

I have to admit it: I do not share well. Not that I am a monster or anything but I have tended to see the world as a zero sum universe. That is, if someone else hears about my secret blackberry patch in the woods, then they gain and I lose. Somehow, to me, that view seems grounded in reality, but it is not the politically correct choice for sure.

Well not to get off course onto ethics and sociology. The point of this post is chickens. It is my conceit to make Shadows End as close to a working country cottage as is possible. If it were up to me I would raise all the necessary produce for my meals right in the backyard. I have for many years dreamed of my own little chicken coop like the ones my Nanny (grandmother) always had. It seems such a simple thing, in exchange for some food and basic shelter the flock of hens provides you with rich wholesome eggs far better than any you can purchase in the store. Get up with the cockcrow, walk out to the coop and scatter some grain.

Well, as in so many walks into nostalgia, the reality was somewhat different. First, finding baby chicks in modern America is not as easy as you would assume. First, the few stores that do stock chicks today carry only the most common of breeds - sometimes only Rhode Island Reds. Now Reds are a fine and useful breed but that is little consolation if you have your heart set on big golden Buff Orpingtons or some other more exotic breed. Well, they will all let you know that you can always order any breed you want over the internet. Umm yeah, that's cool if you don't mind ordering 25 chicks at a time and have them shipped to you in a cardboard box. Needless to say the image of a box full of dead chicks spread pitifully across the bottom of a UPS box leaped to my mind. No, no, no this was not going to be my choice.

So, I called and visited every bastion of country life I could still find here in the suburban development capitol of the world. The good news, is that my patience search paid off and I found a great feed store that did indeed carry Buff Orpingtons. Patience got me that far but then indecision kicked in. I analyzed, delayed and polled all my friends for advice. Finally, I went to the store ( for the 5th time ) determined to pick up 2 Buff chicks. Unfortunately, in the delay all the buffs were taken and they only had a scraggly pair of pea-hens left. So I was forced to wait for the next order. Said order came in 2 weeks later; I rushed to the store- no buffs had come in all Barred Plymouth Rocks and some ducks. I decided to hold out for Buffs.

I kept the resolve for a week, then i began to waffle - what if Buffs where too big? (9 to 12 lbs), what if Florida was too hot for their huge fluffy feather topcoat? Also, I learned that Barred Rocks were now being accounted as equal to or even superior to Buffs in their docile nature and ease of taming to pets. So... after a perfect convergence of impatience and determination, I walked back into the store for the 6th time and walked out with two gawky Barred Rock chicks. It turns out that somewhere between that little Easter chick look and the big fat hen there is some early phase where they look for all the world like little velociraptors from Jurassic park. Their feet were huge - surely full grown, their necks were long and snakey and they had lost most of their down but not yet with a full set of feathers. Basically, not cuddley.

On they way home they were amazingly quiet. They made cute little peeps and chirpy noises as I transferred them from the travel box to their temporary home in the house. I kept them in a large dog carrier in my TV room. For several days I kept them inside to be sure they did not get too wet or cold. I rained for almost 2 weeks and they got quiet comfortable in their room as long as I kept a fan running and Mozart flute concertos on the CD player.

It was at this time that I observed their personalities when I would take them into the garden to play. One was far more adventurous and willing to venture out and try new things - however, once her nerve was shaken she would freak out and half run half fly to he sister's side. Inevitably there was a collision at which she would flip up in the air and shadow box with her sister. This chick I named Millicent, Millie for short and Silly Milly by behavior. The other was far more calm and reserved, twice she watched her sister flap her way out of sight then listen to her begin cheeping as loud as she could in panic to find her sister. Inevitably, the serious hen would run to the silly one to reassure her that she had not vanished. After a long series of these rescues this one began to grow weary of the toil and decided that since i was the one who let her sister out of the box, I was responsible for the ordeals. Hence, while her sister loved to be touched and rubbed she would avoid it and cluck disapprovingly if you brushed her - although she would tolerate gentle rubbing of her lower neck. This hen was name Abigail, Abbey for short and crabby Abby by nature.

Finally, after 2 weeks the rain let up and it was time to move outside. I took the dog carrier out to the chicken pen I had spent weeks preparing. Perhaps not a 5 star hotel but I did the best I can. The coop is a large cedar doghouse with pine shavings and a removable roof for cleaning. The outside run is about 6feet by 15feet with a covered feed area and a sheltered roost I made from an old dead oak limb. The door to the entire pen is a top of the line vinyl door from Lowes mounted on a palisade of pressure treated 2X4s. I was quite proud of it and hoped it would appease any neighbor fears and would certainly be treated as a paradise by chickens raised in hellishly overcrowded brood lots, marketed in a narrow low wire cage packed with other chicks and recently housed in a dog travel box

Well that was my opinion, apparently Abigail and Millicent had other impressions.
I don't know if it was shock at being in such a relatively wide open area or at the fact that there was no piped in Mozart; but whatever it was, they were not amused. Sullenly they clung to the dog carrier and barely moved about their new home. Every visit to bring them water or food would lead to them attaching themselves to my trousers like sandspurs. They would climb on my shoes and try to escape the cage like convicts on a laundry truck.

After nearly 2 weeks in this state Abby and Milly began to apprise their surroundings. They fell in love with the giant pot of aloe I left in the area and soon reduced it to a finely raked zen garden of dirt and rocks. Much, much, more distressingly, they discovered that the roof of their coop could be a launching point for escape. Now mind you they never wandered inside the expensive cedar house but huddled under it to escape the rain. But the roof was unerringly attractive to them. Within the second day of total freedom within the gilded cage I had built for them, they were seeking for total freedom in the outside world as well. As usual, Millicent was the one to seek adventure. Sometime in the night she managed to fly from ground to roof to post to ground again and succeeded in escape.

I do not know how she passed the night but that next morning, I entered the pen to see no site of either hen. I was devastated, assuming death and disaster. I looked for them and found Abigail huddled, verily shaking in the corner underneath the roost cover. She looked terrified and my heart fell. Suddenly, I heard Milly make a low peep. She was on the other side of the fence (thank god). I looked over and there she sat clutched on a piece of broken lumber. When she saw me she began to peep and chirp louder.

To get to the other side of the fence required me to go totally around my backyard, across the front of both houses, around the back of the neighbor's house and into their side yard. By the time I reached Milly she was hysterical and Abigail was equally panicked and making distress signals of her own. Milly ran to me and I scooped her up to my chest. She quieted down instantly and began her low cheeping. But Abby was still screaming as we hurried back to the pen. I pulled the door open with Milly on my shoulder only to see Abby perched on the fence looking frantically for her sister. The sensible Abby had thought better of fleeing a nice safe pen in a neighborhood of cats, raccoons and possums. But her common sense was now undone by concern for her sister and she could not take being parted any longer. Thank god Milly peeped louder and Abby saw her but she was already tread ed unsteadily on the fence half way into the neighbor's yard already. I held Milly up for Abby to see and she began to try to turn. Oh god what a trembling, stumbling affair. I expected at any second to see her fall and then I would have to began another rescue run while praying Milly would stay and wait for me to return. Thankfully, Abby managed to turn 360 degrees and leap back down to the roof of the coop.

Even thought the girls eventually made two successful breakouts, the effort I spent in advance preparing the pen was well worth it. Even though they found a way to get out of my 6 foot wooden fence with one foot of concrete buried all along the perimeter to prevent digging. A little addition of 3 feet of garden fencing on top with a poultry net hung over the top seems to have solved the problem for the moment.

Well, hmm it seems I have written several pages and spent several days on this little post so perhaps I am a tiny bit obsessive regarding the little dears. Well lets jump to the point (if any).

First, yes you can raise chickens in the city. Almost every city allows at least a small number of hens. Most do not allow roosters. Secondly, they can be made safe and secure although you should expect to spend more money and a lot more time than the "experts" tell you. Third, they are not loud, Abby and Milly usually just chirp throughout the day - although they can still be roused to a chorus of chirps if you play music around them. Finally, yes indeed, having some chickens around the house does give you that warm happy feeling that you are somehow, someway closer to being separated from the industrial food chain that chokes us on meat by products and eggs snatched from the wreck and ruin of hens confined to less than 3/4 of a square foot (less than a sheet of school paper) have their beaks cut off (this still qualifies as cruelty free by the way) and are called free range if their prison has a 1X1 foot hole in one side of the huge cage houses they swelter in. This is not to mention the constant infusion of antibiotics and a hellish diet where almost half the protein comes from chicken carcasses.

You may notice I did not mention the benefit of fresh eggs. That is because the girls are not that age yet. When I get my first egg ( can they be bronzed ) I will be sure to post and fill in on that story.

So, I'm a rancher at last