29 June 2011

Hen Party, short story long

It only took ten years to get this Hen Party started.
The stopping point was finding time to build a coop. Recently, while browsing Italian eBay (yes, it's indispensable!), I came across a kit for a precious little pollaio (chicken coop). I took the measurements outside to my potential chicken zone and decided it would be perfect. To be honest, it didn't register just how big (or small) it would actually be...
Once I saw the actual size, I began to define what I really might be able to do. Two or three chickens at the most! This called for careful selection. First, to consider the breed of said hens. And, yes, only girls. The nearest neighbor's rooster offers plenty of farm ambience without another one chiming in from under my bedroom window! And hens will produce eggs without a guy, that much I knew.

I started researching local antique breeds and found several interesting varieties, including the Razza Valdarno from the Chiana valley just below us. However, with more in-depth reading, I learned that this is a breed prized for its meat more than its eggs. Stop. We're simply not going to eat our pets (just their unfertilized embryos...).

I found a charming association of people interested in special breeds of poultry, Il Pollaio del Re, in Grosseto. I hope to visit there at some point, but as time is short during this busy season, that will have to wait. I did find several resources for these nice old breeds, hearty stock with good eggs, but most, with good reason, wanted me to buy a breeding pair to keep the breed thriving. Stop. No boys allowed at our Hen Party...
My Italian friends asked me every day, when will you get your chickens? This was taking me a bit longer than necessary due to my obsessively detailed decision-making process. I still needed to find organic feed! When our guests see the intense color of egg yolks here, they are always surprised. In Italian the word for yolk is tuorlo, but is also called the 'rosso,' or red, for the intensity of color (actually more of a dark orange, to my eye...). This is really determined by the feed, and carotene from carrots and corn give it that color push. But, as we know, corn is the probably the most manipulated food products on the planet, and if I'm to follow the rules for my organic certification (if I want to eventually sell eggs), the regualr corn on the market will not be acceptable. Clearly, if I want to use corn, I'll need to head up to visit my friends in Garfagnana for some of that nice Otto File corn that is still the original variety that was brought from America hundreds of years ago.
In the meantime, I bought some good cracked seeds and grain from the miller in our village (with some regular corn in it), just to get started.

Back to the breed decision, I had become a bit infatuated with the Araucana breed, originally from Chile (or at least South America), but quite well-settled in Italy. Their eggs have a pastel green to blue shell, and I thought it would be fun to have those in our breakfast room. Several breeders were willing to ship me eggs, but that required an incubator and...well... time...

Eventually I decided that I would get a couple of nice hens who, once they started laying, might not notice a little blue or green egg under them waiting to hatch (would solve some broodiness as well). But, then my brilliant daughter pointed out that the eggs could turn out to be males. Stop. The idea of just getting a couple of nice hens was sticking, though, and I was getting a bit tired of my own dawdling...

"Just get them at the Thursday market," everyone said. And, I knew this. For ten years I've been looking at those poor birds and wondering if I could save some of them, henpecked and scrawny and crowded in a stinky box. Everyone knows I am a Rescuer, but this time I wanted something healthy and clean to start my new chicken environment. I remembered that early in this adventure, a friend with an organic property offered me a hen or two from her abundant flock, and I suddenly realized this was exactly what I wanted.
So, yesterday I set out in the little Fiat for my friend's place in Montisi, about 30 kms from home. Putt...putt... it's slow going in this little car, but finally I arrived, snagged two little ladies and put them in the wicker basket I use to take the cats to the vet (imagine the next ride for the cats with the strange and wonderful smell of chickens inside). They sat on the seat next to me, cooing and calm, for what turned out to be quite an eventful ride with an unexpected thunderstorm and an even more unexpected loss of brakes. We arrived home (very slowly, hand on the emergency brake) to a downpour and got the settled in their new home with fresh water and their kibble.
This morning, I could see that they slept in their nests, but didn't leave any treasures.
They surely need some time to acclimate.

When we let them out into their fenced area we noticed that they have a personal guard...
I hope to have some egg news soon!!


  1. It is fun to keep your own chickens, we used to in the Uk but have decided to be free of anything that stops as from travelling nowadays.

  2. I am looking forward to possibly seeing the chicken coop in the fall for real! I have been trying to email you but I keep getting a delivery status failure notification each time. Help??...We are looking to stay at the B&B in the fall.

  3. Maggie, try emailing me at

  4. Well, I am so sorry it took me this long to find your wonderful posts. This one just rocks. I love that you have your hens, and smiled a smile of recognition at the process. My husband and I are obsessive researchers, compiling files and notes prior to any important purchase. I hope your hens give you lots of eggs. It certainly sounds like you have given them a great home.