Of Cheese and Chickens

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The last few weeks have seen a focus on the very things that make up the title of this blog. Let me start with the cheese.

For my birthday I got a very expensive gift that most people would not find anywhere near as exciting as I did. A very flash wine fridge. Now, I don’t drink wine, but such an appliance, with its dual temperature zones and wooden racks, is perfect for aging cheese.

I have been making soft cheese for a couple of years now, and we love the stuff. However, it is not very versatile, and when it comes to making pizza or sandwiches or even grating it to top tacos or spaghetti bolognese, it is never going to be right for the job.

In the past few months I have thrown together a few batches of mozzarella and ricotta. Microwave mozzarella has saved the day on a couple of occasions when I have gone to make pizza and discovered that I had no pizza cheese, but there was plenty of milk in the fridge. Ricotta is another quick, basic cheese that makes a great pasta filling and forms the basis for my favourite cannelloni. It also combines with a couple of duck eggs to make a really easy but not too sweet cheesecake.

I had planned to attempt to use the garage fridge to age some hard cheeses over summer. Even turned right down, the fridge can’t actually heat up, so the only way to get it to sit at a constant 10 degrees would be to wait until the temperature garage stays warm to hot for several weeks. This leaves me with a fairly short cheese-making season.

But with the new wine fridge acting as the perfect cheese cave, I have got busy. So far I have made four batches of farmhouse cheddar and a brie. The first batch of cheddar got us out of a tight spot tonight when it was used on tacos. It is still a week from really being mature, but it is currently quite mild and milky and has a good texture. The brie is still several weeks off being ready, but I am hopeful that it will form a mould on the outside correctly and have that creamy interior. On its third day in the fridge it already smells amazing.

Here is the fridge with three batches of waxed cheddar in the bottom and the red tub containing the brie in the top.

The fridge with cheeses and a couple of freeloading bottles of cider

The fridge with cheeses and a couple of freeloading bottles of cider

 

And now for the chickens.

As spring ramps up into summer, the hens start to go broody. The Rhode Island Reds can be hard to get to sit well, so we’ve had a couple of aborted attempts by them. But the Silkies, bless them, have been brilliant first-time mums.

It began with the white hen, Quartz, who I decided to start off easy by giving her seven of her own eggs to sit on. All seven hatched without any fuss or fanfare. Even the egg that the red hen in the nest next to her managed to steal one day. Those babies are now three weeks old.

Quartz with her Silkie chicks.

Quartz with her Silkie chicks.

While Pie the goose was ensconced in the chook palace with her eggs, little Opal, another Silkie, made a nest in the corner behind her. This was a great spot, out-of-the-way and protected from crows by Pie’s ferocious hissing and snaky neck. I let Opal set a nest of her own eggs, but shortly after she sat Quartz’s brood emerged. I decided that we didn’t really need any more Silkies, so Opal’s eggs were replaced with some Rhode Island Red eggs that I had been saving.

I wasn’t expecting a super hatch rate, as the RIR eggs had been sitting on the bench for a while variously in cartons and in the egg basket, but I figured it was worth a try. I took my life into my hands and got a vicious bite on the back of my leg from Pie when I switched Opal’s eggs over. But 21 days later I was rewarded with six little red chicks. A seventh took a bit longer, but hatched under the broody Red hen and was reunited with his peers the next day. Only one of the eight eggs was infertile.

Opal with her Rhode Island Red chicks.

Opal with her Rhode Island Red chicks.

With five RIR hens already in the yard, these babies will be raised for meat. Ironically, it looks like five of the seven are female. You would never get that ratio if you were hoping for your next generation of egg layers. My original trio of RIRs has become thirteen in about 18 months, so it seems I have finally found a standard utility breed that works well here. The hens are a bit of a nuisance, laying all over the place in spots where crows can steal the eggs, but we are making some progress.

Back to Pie the goose. Earlier in the season she sat on a clutch that didn’t hatch. I don’t know why. Most of them were fertile, but died in the shell somewhere around the middle of the third week. Poor Pie looked awful after sitting for so long, and I felt terrible for her. I boosted her off the nest, watched her gain condition, and waited for her to sit again.

She chose a nice, safe spot in the new poultry palace. She laid a small clutch of five and sat. Through thunderstorms and marauding sheep, she sat tight on that nest for 30 days. Every time there was a thunderstorm I worried about the embryos, as I have heard that they can be killed by the vibration of the thunder. But on day 31 I found Pie with three newly hatched goslings. Success!

Pie with her two remaining goslings.

Pie with her two remaining goslings.

Pie is not the best mum. When she spotted a big Pekin duck egg in a nest nearby she felt that she needed to go and sit on it. The goslings couldn’t find her. I found two huddled beside the plastic tub and the third had sought warmth under Opal in the corner. I reunited Pie with her babies. Then she went outside and left them stuck in the plastic tub in their house. I reunited them again.

With some help from Xander the gander, Pie kept her little brood together for their first day outside. The second day, though, disaster struck. Matt heard a commotion in the chook pen and I went out to investigate. I was just in time to see a huge crow fly off, a ball of grey fluff with little webbed feet poking out of its nasty beak.

So now the goose family are confined to the safety of the pen until the goslings are big enough to keep close to their parents and not get abducted and murdered by crows. I still roll my eyes every time Pie stands up from a rest and flaps her wings, causing the goslings to fall onto the ground most unceremoniously. Hopefully Pie will learn from the experience and be a better mum next year.

Let me just say that there is a reason why you might call a silly person a goose.

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