Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The story of chicken (part one)

Chicken on grass in sunshine, a very simple equation
One Sunday a little while back we roasted a chicken. You may think this is nothing special given we raise pastured chickens. They must have chicken all the time, you think to yourself. But the thing is we don't. This is partly because there is more demand for our chickens than actual chicken available so we often end up selling part of our own share. But it's also because we think chicken should be special. For us, chicken is not an everyday food. We think vegetables and herbs and fruit are everyday food, meat is not. 

I know we've all been sold the notion of cheap chicken. You can get the stuff for $5 per kg in the supermarket. It's probably the cheapest protein around, but there's a price to be paid for this kind of cheap protein. It's the price of a chicken that has literally lived its life in shit and never been outside and the price of anti-biotic resistance and the price of a farmer that is forced to farm so intensively to make a semblance of income and the price of chicken meat seriously bereft of nutrients and the price of environmental catastrophe and the price of forgetting what food can actually taste like....

There was something pretty special about this roast chicken dinner. It happened amidst Annie's chemo regime. Our eating throughout her chemo consisted of a lot of broth and kale and miso and really whatever we could throw together that might satisfy our kids and Annie's very unwell self at the time. Chemotherapy and small farm life and two little kids is a very particular type of chaos. Needless to say, roast chicken dinners were not at the top of the dinner list. But this Sunday we had time and Annie was feeling ok and we had this whopping 3.5kg chicken in our freezer so we fired (literally) up our wood oven and created a little something special for ourselves. 

Big fella out of freezer

Holy smoke - what a delicious sight
A 3.5kg chicken, WTF?! I know I know... we'd grown it in Autumn. Autumn is a very good time for growing chickens. Not too hot, not too cold. the pasture is lush from late Summer - early Autumn rain. It's not windy, chickens are calm and they grow and they just keep growing, if you let them. This big guy was about 14 weeks old when we killed him. 

In your conventional shed raised industrial system the chickens are killed around 5 weeks of age. This includes so-called free range. Basically these chickens live in sheds in their own shit. They live with thousands of other chickens and they often have the lights on for up to 20 hours everyday. Lights on means they will eat more, hence grow more quickly and be ready to slaughter at 5 weeks of age. In most pasture raised systems the chickens are killed around 8-9 weeks of age. They don't have lights on at night so only eat during daylight hours which are also spent foraging, nesting, walking, running, flapping ie. using more energy and growing more slowly. We were interested to see what would happen if we let our chickens live longer than nine weeks.  We liked the idea of a longer lived chicken. Better taste, better texture we surmised. But there is so much mythical scare mongering about the Cornish Cross meat chicken that we were nervous - it's a fast growing monster... It can't walk past five weeks of age... It'll die suddenly of a heart attack... It just sits around eating all day...  Regardless we gave it a try and it was as we thought. Better! The meat has more texture and flavour, the leg meat is darker and richer and there's just so much of it that no one misses out. I remember pulling the chicken out of the oven and tearing off a little bit of skin. Oh my! It was transcendental. I dug a little deeper and pulled off a chunk of flesh. I exclaimed out loud, it was just so good. Normally in a collective context one would feel some guilt about hoeing into the chicken before anyone else but when you have 3.5kg of the stuff you can please yourself knowing there is plenty for everyone. This night I felt rich. 

Note - much darker leg meat
We ate well that night and the next day and the next day -  A sensational dinner followed by some pretty spectacular sandwiches for a few days and all culminating in a very lovely bone broth. 

Quality leftovers indeed
Regarding the Cornish Cross disparaging. It is, in the main, related to context. Chickens raised in their thousands in a shed probably don't move very much. Where would they go? And how would they get there? Of course they can't move. Their circadian rhythms are all out of whack from being kept awake most of the night so they probably do have a lot of health problems and are destined for a short life. To a certain extent this is linked to their breed. The reality is that a chicken bred to grow big breasts and fast will lose something in the way of resilience. To a large extent it's about context and it's about good grasses and sunshine. We can easily grow our meat chickens to 21 weeks and beyond because they have ample access to good grasses and sunshine. Their legs and hearts and livers are strong. It may sound simplistic but it's "the truth". Our animal husbandry is almost entirely premised on sun and grass. We aim to let our chicks out of the brooder into the sun and onto the grass for periods of the day by five days of age (weather permitting). Those that get this are noticeably more robust, active and resilient than those that have to remain inside due to cold or overcast or windy or wet weather. 

People ask us why we don't grow more chickens. We could. We have a waiting list of potential customers so the demand is most certainly there. But we can't because it's about the grass, man. The grass needs time to recover. It won't get the time it needs if we have too many chickens walking on it, eating on it and profusely shitting on it. To create and maintain a healthy pasture based system that regenerates the land rather than denudes it requires much keen observation, some restraint and some acceptance of limited profit. This is why chicken is special. 

Chicks being chicks on a sunny day OUTSIDE
I've got another couple of big guys in the freezer - 3.3 and 3.6kg. The 3.6er was a 21 week old rooster we called 'Big Daddy'. I'll probably write about him at a later time as he had a special place in my heart. In the meantime I'm planning how exactly to cook him for my birthday lunch in Spring. 

Sunday, July 27, 2014

When you're on a good thing...

There's a woman called Vanessa who lives in Balgownie, who's a fan of buying crocheted stubby holders for her friends as gifts. Obviously, I like this, because I love crocheting stubby holders for people, and I love the thought of people receiving handmade gifts.
Vanessa has bought stubby holders from me before, but this lot, which she requested a few weeks ago, turned out particularly well on account of the fact that I was lying sick on the couch, so had hours to spend on experimenting with fancy crochet stitches and embroidery and whatnot.

Vanessa and I are both particularly fond of the blue and orange criss-cross one, which is made using the stitch I recently learned to make a chemo hat. I reckon I'm going to have to make myself one just like it.

Oh and in case you're wondering, there are only 4 more skirts left in the skirt sale! Norfolk Island, the brown Australian Fauna one, the pink print one with embroidered pockets and the Cornwall mini. If you want one, make me an offer. I won't refuse!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

It's time for a P&E by-donation skirt clear-out fundraiser!

Hi team! (yes, I think of you all as my team... Hope that's cool)

I realised today that I have a big stack of P&E skirts hanging about that need to go and do their thing in the world, so I'm offering them to you, blog readers, as part of a clear-out sale, where skirts will be available by donation. That's right folks - if you want one of these skirts, send me an email - pearlandelspeth@gmail.com - outlining the skirt you want and the amount you'd like to pay. This should be based on what you can afford and what you think the skirt is worth. Seriously - you name the price. Cool yeh?

If you really can't afford one, but want one, I'm also open to bartering, so email me. Especially if your bartering offer involves corflute signs (I can use them for the chook houses) or green and/or red/pink/yellow/orange wool (crocheting a blanket).

In the past, during these kind of clearances, some skirts have proven to be more popular than others and have been snaveled up very quickly, leaving some disappointed people in their wake. If this happens again, the highest bidder will be the 'winner' and will get the skirt. This is because I am a mercenary, capitalist scumbag. And also because the money raised from this clear-out will go towards building new houses for our Autumn Farm pastured meat chickens. Fair enough, right?

The skirt sale ends next wednesday, when any unclaimed skirts will be sent to the op shop. So I guess Bega Valley readers can try their luck with that.

I'm listing them with the waist (top of the skirt - you don't have to wear it on your waist if you don't want to) measurement in cm, because I don't make to sizes like 12 or 14.
Oh, and these 2 little skirts, for little people, will be given away for free, on request, with the purchase of another grown-up skirt. Just let me know which one you want.

So now's your chance - get ye-self a lovely P&E skirt and contribute to some new chicken houses.

Go team!
Reclaimed Australian Fauna tablecloth A-line,  82cm

Wren-pocket wrap 'n go,  84cm. You can give or take a few cm for this one as it's a wrap skirt

Souvenir of Norfolk Island (it's blue on the back), 77cm

Fishing A-line, 102cm
Purple vintage curtains with pockets,  82cm

Grafton mini skirt,  96cm

Cornwall mini skirt, 92cm

Vintage embroidered swan pocket A-line,  84cm
Navy velvet with vintage print side panels A-line,  79cm

Vintage pink print with embroidered pockets A-line, 66cm

Cross-stitch print with vintage doily pocket, 91cm
Horse pocket wrap 'n go, 85cm (give or take a bit)

Pin stripe A-line with embroidered pocket, 77cm

Vintage hiking person pocket A-line,  85cm
Teeny tiny but extremely gorgeous, perhaps for the discerning tween in your life? 67cm

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Woohoo bone broth!

After my first dose of chemo knocked my white blood cells through the floor (like, there weren't any left..) my oncology nurse asked me if I'd had any drugs to bring them back up - apparently they'd made an impressive recovery. And you know what? No drugs were involved in the resurrection of my white blood cells, just an insane amount of bone broth. 

That's just one of the many good things about being a pastured chicken farmer - almost endless supplies of super-healthy chicken bits for making broth. I even caught myself thinking things like "Wow! What better time to be a pastured chicken farmer than when you've got cancer!". And while that's obviously a slight exaggeration (keeping Autumn Farm going through all this has been slightly arduous - just ask Pearl and the small army of 'chicken support units' who've been lending a hand) it has been great to know that I can drink as much pastured chicken broth as I like.

So what's so good about broth? And what even is broth anyway? Well, in our minds, broth is a magical liquid that's got some major goody-goodness-nutrition in it, normally involving cooking a whole bunch of the best kind of health-giving ingredients for a really long time. The long-cooking extracts the nutrients and minerals from your ingredients  (especially the bones), condenses them into the liquid, and makes them available for your body to absorb and use. According to, Jennifer McGruther, author of The Nourished Kitchen, "Homemade broth is rich in calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and other trace minerals.   The minerals in broth are easily absorbed by the body.   Bone broth even contains glucosamine and chondroiton – which are thought to help mitigate the deletorious effects of arthritis and joint pain." 

Perfect for sick people, little people, chemo-ravaged people, and even perfectly healthy normal people who need some nourishing goodness in their lives!

In our house, a broth normally involves lots of different veggies and herbs from our garden and the gardens of our friends (onion, garlic, parsley, carrots, celery, sweet potato just as a start), and some chicken bits. The chicken bits may include feet and/or necks,  a carcass or 2, and/or some bones leftover from a roast. Then we simmer it all with a splash of apple cider vinegar for a really long time - 24 hours at a minimum - sometimes on the fire, sometimes on the gas, topping up the water if needed. We then strain it off. The liquid gold that results from this process (seriously! It's gold!) is then either drunk, straight up, like an old-fashioned health brew, or used as a base for soup, miso, risotto (we've recently been experimenting with grains like spelt and barley in our risottos, which we're loving) or whatever else needs a bit of liquid goodness.

Now obviously we're not the first people to be in love with bone broth as super-healing elixir: this kind of caper has been going on for yonks, in all kinds of cultures, all over the world. The thing that amazes us is that it's not more popular and prevalent. Seriously - it's home-made medicine yo! And it tastes super-great! And it's cheap! And it uses up bits of stuff that might otherwise just get chucked out or composted!! And if you don't believe me, my exceedingly clever and nutritionally wise friend Genna has written about it on her beautiful blog, How Do You Like Them Green Apples? and there's also more information - historical, nutritional, and instructional - on the Nourished Kitchen blog. Look at it - it's good for you.

While chickens, for obvious reasons, are forming the basis for the vast majority of the broth action around here, we're also enjoying pastured beef bone broth (from our friends at Symphony Farm) and some pretty freakin' awesome fish broth, courtesy of some of our successful fisher-friends. My personal fave for the fish broth is to just have a big bowl of it served with a ton of kimchi. Cannot. Go. Wrong.

Fish broth on the go, utilising the remnants of a massive salmon that Pearl's dad caught for us, which we baked with some dill and garlic and shallots.
And if you don't have a near-endless supply of chicken bits at your disposal, you can always do a 'freezer-bag broth', which is the way we used to do things. Basically, whenever you chop or peel a carrot/leek/sweet potato/onion/whatever, instead of composting the bits, you put them into a dedicated bag or container that lives in your freezer. Similarly, when you roast a chook, or have a BBQ or whatever, chuck your bones in there too. When the bag is full, dump the lot into a big pot with some peppercorns and bay leaves, cover with water, and simmer away!

I've just realised that this post might sound kind of bossy. I don't mean to be bossy - I'm just excited. And I'm also feeling all inspired because of the book I started last night, called Independence Days, which is all about reclaiming food production (amongst other things). So think of my ranting less as bossing and more as a call to arms - let's start with some broth, shall we??

Friday, July 11, 2014

Sometimes you just gotta crochet a dragon scarf for your baby

Early on in my days of fanatical internet-and-library-crochet-pattern perusing, I stumbled upon Moogly. Have you seen it? I freakin' love it! I especially love their 'roundups'. The first roundup I ever saw was the animal scarf roundup, and I instantly fell in love with the dragon scarf.
Last week, I finally got around to making one for Oscar. It was really fast and easy to make, and uses only a ball of wool for the body, and scraps for the other bits. I modified the wings from the pattern's instructions, and just made them using granny-square treble clusters, in Oscar's favourite colour - orange! The body is made using alternating double and single crochet, which creates a very cool 'scaly' kind of pattern/texture.
Draggy, as the scarf has become known, is spending a lot more time being played with than being worn as a scarf, and I can kind of understand why. He's pretty adorable. And what's not to love about a scarf that doubles as a toy?

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The ravages (or, what it's really like)

The last few months our family has been almost completely consumed with trying to cope with the ramifications of my cancer treatment. This has meant a lot of different things for each of us, and I don't know that any of us were able to be fully prepared for what the journey would entail. This is partly because there is no way to know exactly how you're going to react to chemo - everyone, it would seem, has a slightly different experience. But it's also, I think, because even though there is a lot of information listing the specific side effects for each of the chemo drugs, nothing I found actually describes what it's like.
Showing off my no-boob scar whilst being treated for nutropenia after my first chemo dose. 
I've had a phobia of chemo for years. I always thought that if I got cancer, I'd forgo chemo. But, when faced with my diagnosis, and the statistics around my different treatment options, I made the decision, ultimately for my family, to go ahead and have it.

And it's been surprising. And because it's been surprising, and not really what any of the literature says it's going to be like, I wanted to write a blog post about my experience in the hope that it helps someone else go into the journey a little more prepared. For those of you who read this blog because you like good food and/or information about natural building and/or farming stuff and/or craft, this may or may not be interesting for you. I hope you all understand my reasons for wanting to share this aspect of my family's journey in this forum - this blog is about our life, and at the moment our life is a lot about chemo.

Because of my chemo-phobia, after I made the decision to go down this treatment road, I read pretty much anything I could in an effort to know what I was getting myself in for. What I've since learned is that a list of side effects doesn't really help you to understand that what it actually feels like. For example: "nausea and/or vomiting" should probably say something more like "the worst flu you've ever had combined with a really terrible hangover that lasts for a week or so". Similarly, "Gastrointestinal upset" actually means "someone has poured some full-strength Drano down your mouth-hole and it's shot straight through to the other end", and "diarrhea" means "get yourself some nappies - you're going to need them".

When the list says "tiredness and fatigue", what it really means is "complete exhaustion to the point where having a brief conversation with someone will make you feel like you've just run 10km (but don't expect to sleep properly because you're going to be totally pumped up on steroids)". When it says "metallic taste and/or taste changes" it means "everything in your mouth, including your taste-buds will shrivel up and die, so that everything you eat tastes like boiled choko". "Mouth ulcers" means "more Drano effect".

Then there are the 'minor' side-effects, listed as things like "brittle fingernails", "nosebleeds" and "hair loss", which actually manifest as "feels like every single fingernail has been hit very hard with a hammer", "torrential outpouring of blood requiring a towel to fully curb the flow (and rock-hard boogies when it's not bleeding)" and... well, hair loss. That's actually the only one that's been as I anticipated.

Similarly, when the side-effects list says "low white blood cells", and the chemo nurse tells you with no small degree of seriousness that any kind of fever means an immediate trip to hospital, no-one actually says that when you get to hospital at 2am you'll be admitted into an isolation room, bubble-boy style, and given intravenous antibiotics for 48 hours. People who come to visit you during this time have to wear gloves, masks and gowns because you're so immuno-compromised.
Kids visiting the isolation chamber

These attractive side effects last for about a week after each treatment, though the last dose hit me harder and lasted longer, and it's likely that my next dose will be even worse. I'm also currently processing a barrage of pre-medications that are being administered in conjunction with the chemo drugs  after I had a particularly nasty reaction to my second dose. The reaction, apparently, was my body's way of saying "Hell no!" to the chemo drugs, so now they drug me into submission. These submission drugs add a foggy, chemical-y hangover to the mix of chemo side-effects. Fun times.

But I think by far the most challenging thing for me has been psychological, and has resulted from my inability to come peacefully to terms with the fact that my body just isn't working properly right now. This has in turn made me realise how much I took my fitness and general good-health for granted. I rode my bike, I did farm stuff, I carried 20 litre water barrels and bags of chicken feed all over our land, I carried my kids around and I built stuff. Now I need a lie-down if I do so much as a load of washing up, and I go for days and days without even walking out to the paddock to look at our chickens, and sometimes it all just makes me cry because I miss being able to do all the stuff that makes me me
Less than 48 hours post-mastectomy, we were out in the paddock being photographed by our exceedingly talented friend, Eryca Green
The physical changes - the loss of my left breast and the loss of my hair - have been remarkably easy to come to terms with. I suppose it's been interesting in that the whole experience has definitely highlighted what's important for me, which is most certainly functionality over form: I've quite embraced being a bald, one-boobed lady, but I don't know that I'd ever fully embrace complete and utter fatigue.

Ultimately though, I believe that the whole experience will prove to be a positive one, above and beyond the mere practicalities of killing off errant cancer cells. It has been profoundly and deeply humbling for me to be so completely vulnerable - to see my beautiful Pearl working so hard to take care of us all, to see our amazing community, our friends and family helping us in so many and varied ways, to let go of my pride and just accept that people love me and are happy to take care of me, and that it's OK to not be super-strong all the time. And hey - I've developed some pretty sweet crochet skills and done a ton of reading, so it's not all bad.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Hurrah for lovely woolly hat action in the Winter time!

Many years ago, my friend Kim knitted me this hat.
It is so so beautiful and has been my favourite hat every winter since. At the time she gave it to me I asked her about the provenance of the pattern, and she explained that it came from a chemo hat website. We both laughed that laugh of young people who don't really think they'll ever get cancer.

And now here I am!! 

When the prospect of losing all my hair DURING WINTER became a reality, I quickly ramped up my hat collecting, mostly via donations from generous and crafty friends and family. But I just had to have another of these lovely hats, called, amazingly, the Amelia Earheart Aviator cap. I love it so!! I can't knit, so I sent the pattern out to some crafty knitting friends, and now have a couple more of these amazing hats in my special hat repertoire, each so unique that it's like having 3 different hats that are all related by their awesomeness - a super-soft most beautiful blue one from Linda, and a gorgeous pinky one from Carol that's a little bit bigger so perfect for sleeping, in addition to the lovely most gorgeous green with fancy embellishments from Kim. How special is that?!

In addition to my collection of aviation caps, I've also received a delicious fire-engine-red beanie from my Nana (instantaneously snaveled by Oscar), and couple of fab-o hats from my ma, including this perfectly-coloured crocheted rasta-hat-cum-beret, which is - wait for it - LINED IN FLEECE, so is officially the warmest hat I own. 
This is very very handy. I had completely underestimated just how much warmth my hair provided for my poor little noggin, which is now so exposed to the elements. Not that that's all bad. I absolutely love it when it's warm enough to go hat-less, to feel the sun and breeze on a part of my body that hasn't felt the sun and breeze since I was a teeny baby. But after about 3pm, when the sun sinks, the hat goes on, and stays on, til I'm safely inside sitting in front of the fire.

In addition to these gorgeous hats so kindly and warmly created for me by people I love, I also recently completed a hat for myself which I'm pretty bloody proud of. It involved me teaching myself a new crochet stitch (thank you YouTube!) and making a few false starts, and it was a challenge, but it was bloody well worth it because it's a pretty lovely hat, if I do say so myself. And my crochet confidence has increased exponentially!

Let's all hear it for triple crochet lattice stitch with a speckly rainbow trim- oooohhhhhh!
 When I fist started looking for hat patterns (when you're bald, and it's winter, I think multiple hats are definitely justifiable) I was a little bit frustrated because all the ones I liked were knitted, and learning to knit was just too much of a challenge at this point in my life. And then I found Knits for Life, who, amongst other things (like totally amaze-balls yarn bombing including a Very Hungry Caterpillar bike rack cozy!!!!!), boasts 'crochet patterns that any knitter would envy'. Hallelujah to that!
The top of the hat was actually the trickiest bit for me... Lots of counting - I'm a bit challenged in that department.

The pattern was lovely and easy to follow (once I got the hang of the new stitch), and easy to custom up a bit (I can't help myself) and I am very very happy with my hat. Probably going to make another one, sooner rather than later.

How about you? Have you taught yourself something new lately? It's such a great feeling!