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!!

26 June 2011



Walnut Liqueur

The best nocino I have ever tasted comes from my friend Maura in Modena. Her secret is aging it in small oak barrels that are handmade by her barrel-maker husband, Francesco Renzi. The walnuts are picked on June 25, the holy day of San Giovanni. It is the moment when the pulp is still green and the walnut forming inside has not hardened. Once cut and exposed to the air, the green walnut and everything it touches turns dark brown, including your hands. Work on a surface that won’t stain, and consider wearing gloves. Your nocino should be ready to drink by Christmas.

3 litres grain alcohol (190 proof or 95%)

6 cups sugar

5 dozen green walnuts

3 cinnamon sticks

In a large bowl, stir together the alcohol and sugar until the sugar is dissolved. Set aside. Quarter the nuts with a heavy bladed knife or cleaver. Place in a jar and cover with the alcohol. Add the cinnamon sticks and cover the jar tightly. Place it in a warm, dark place for forty days, stirring it every two or three days.

Strain out the walnuts and discard. Then, using a coffee filter, strain out the sediment and put the nocino into bottles (or a small oak barrel, if you are so inclined), and age for at least six months.

Makes 3 litres

22 June 2011

Summer has arrived, and to finish an absolutely wonderful spring, I made the best of the abundance of roses that pepper my property, from the ones at the end of the vineyard rows, to the small rose garden in front of my house. I'm not sure what variety these are, but the pink ones remind me of the Charlotte Armstrong of my childhood. Fragrant and long-lasting, and free of pesticides, they are perfect for the rose petal syrup or rose liqueur I make every year. A spoonful is heavenly in a glass of prosecco or drizzled over aged cheese. I also use the rose petal syrup to make a sinfully aromatic rose petal sorbet in my Gelato! book.

All of the color you see in the bottle above is natural from the roses themselves; red or pink work the best. This year I used only pink.

Rose Petal Syrup

175 grams (6 oz) of fresh, fragrant rose petals (pink or red)

7 cups granulated sugar

Juice of one lemon , including the seeds and some pulp

Pick the rose petals from an unsprayed rose bush in the morning when they are most fragrant. Grasp the tips of the rose and cut near the center, removing only the colored petals, not the white tip at the base or the base itself.

Place in a non-reactive bowl and toss with 1 ¾ cup of the sugar to macerate. Coat well, squeezing the petals to bruise slightly. Cover with plastic film and let stand in a cool place overnight.

Next day, in a large saucepan, combine 3 ½ cups spring water and the remaining 5 ¼ cups sugar. Bring to a boil, stirring, until the sugar dissolves. Add the lemon juice and macerated rose petals with their sugary liquid to the pan and return to a boil.

Reduce to a high simmer and cook for 30 minutes, until a candy thermometer reads 100° C (212°F).

Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature.

Strain, removing the rose petals and lemon seeds.

Place in sterilized bottles.

07 June 2011


Tuscan Primavera 2011, our tenth spring in Tuscany, has been the most luxurious and enduring spring that we have had in a while. It seems the last few years have gone directly from winter to summer, but this year has been truly exceptional. I always think of April as the purple month with lilacs, wistaria, and irises making their debut. May turns red with poppies and yellow with ginestra (scotch broom). Soon we are hauling the potted flowers out of their winter shelter and turning up the garden.

For me, the real joy is in my orto (my kitchen garden), as the buds and seedlings start to pop out. I can hardly resist eating the first flowers on the acacia tree, and then the elderberry tree. See my recipe below.

flowering quince...........................sage..................................garlic chives

Here is a recipe from my new cookbook,
Cucina Povera, Tuscan Peasant Cooking
which will be released September 2011

Frittura di Primavera

Battered and fried spring flowers and vegetables ©

We make this appetizer year round. In the fall and winter we use fuzzy sage leaves and sliced potatoes; in the spring we have elderberry flowers and acacia flowers; in the summer zucchini and their flowers. The important thing is to get the oil as hot as possible without letting it smoke (at least 375°). The hotter the oil is the less absorption in the food. We use olive oil because we have it, and it is delicious, but vegetable oils can be used. Fry in small batches so as large quantities will reduce the temperature of the oil.

4 clusters of unsprayed elderberry flowers (or your local edible flower), rinsed and spun dry

12 Sage leaves, rinsed and patted dry

2 eggs

1 teaspoon salt

¼ cup unbleached all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons sparkling water (or beer or Prosecco)

Extra-virgin olive oil for frying

Salt to taste

Whisk ingredients together until smooth.

Heat the olive oil. Dip the prepared flowers and leaves in the batter, shaking to remove excess, and place in the hot oil. Cook for 1 minute, until golden brown, turn once, then remove to drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with salt and serve warm.

Serves 4

Take a walk with me in our garden on a morning in late April...