We arrived back to Cittanova from our northern travels at the beginning of January to find the the ´teenage´ cockrels who we left in the company of four older hens on the land had died, probably of starvation, and his remains were now being made scarse by his cannibalistic companions. The other cock on the other hand had been rather better looked after in his ´urban pen´in the pleasant company of the red hen. They got to enjoy a lot of christmas holiday left-overs from the ladies living downstairs. Recognizing that having the coop so close to an italian woman´s kitchen was of great strategical advange, we thought we´d take the pair to the land to re-unite the hen with her fellows and give the young cock a taste of freedom, and push our luck a bit further by buying 10 new chicks to fatten up in the garden coop, where they could huddle up against the cold inside the sink unit until warmer days arrived.
Our plan worked for a couple of weeks until one day the landlord told us the landlady wasn´t on board with the idea and so the coop had to be dismantled that very next day and we thought to ourselves, ´couldn´t he have consulted the lady of the house before giving us free reign?´ But not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth (as the saying goes) we immediately set to work taking it apart. As a consolation prize we were able to take away a good quantity of fresh compost while the door we´d made out of a metal frame and chicken wire was given new life on the land.
The old faithful Chicken Tractor became the new abode for our 10 little friends. But within a day of settling in, 10 had become 9: On closer investigation it was found that there was a gap between the lower edge of the tractor and the ground, which a weasel had evidently squeezed through, dragged a chick out, sucked out the softest tastiest bits of its tiny body and left the rest 1 metre away from the tractor on the bare soil for us to find. It was an upsetting way to inaugurate the move. However, the gap was soon filled with a piece of wood, and despite some very low temperatures in the following weeks including one very heavy snowfall in march, all the other chicks survived into the spring.
When they outgrew their stay in the ´tractor´ they were transferred to the Toilet-Chicken-House along the western fence with its limited grazing area.
This year we had a good grapefruit harvest, with both young trees producing abundantly, so in addition to the month of eating grapefruit halves for breakfast we had about 20 fruits left to make a pleasantly bitter sweet marmalade for personal consumption and to give as gifts.
Highlight of March: We´d almost forgotten about the Jerusalem Artichokes that had been planted two years ago, but someone had the curiosity to see what had become of them. From a small crop they had multiplied such that we could then re-plant 100 or so tubers and still have enough left over for a modest meal, eaten together with potatoes and normal artichokes to see which they more closely resembled. I actually found their taste quite similar to chestnut. Delicious and nutritious, so naturally the mealtime was spent fantasizing about how the yield could look in another two years and then four and all the recipes we´ll be able to invent!?
One of the more important tasks during the first months of 2015 was to design and make 100 wedding favours (bomboniere). We decided on home-made soap hearts in scallop shell dishes and glazed mulberries alongside the usual sugared almonds. The latter would be dealt with in June, mulberry season. But one urgent problem was that fresh soap needs to ´mature´ for several months before it can be used and there was not going to be enough time, so the protagonist of this blog decided to buy big blocks of locally-made olive oil soap and employ his wife-to-be to grate it all up and mix it with the leftovers of the soap experiments of recent years.
At the beginning of april the conditions were favourable for planting a seed varietiy that we previously had little or no experience with, called a ´human embryo´ after which nature did all the work while we simply had to wait for around 40 weeks to see the results.
Towards the end of the month the roses came into bloom, the first pomegranate flowers appeared, what promised to be decent sized quinces bent the branches that held them BILD7433, there were tiny grapes in the making, and wild carrot and garlic flowers could be seen. Moving into may the Jerusalem artichokes plants were already about 1 metre tall. The fejoa flowers appeared, followed by the first ripe mulberries.
When we came back from our three week travels at the beginning of June the Man of the Land noticed a few changes. One was that the plot of earth in the middle of the land that he´d ploughed, sown with maize and sunflower seeds and protected by a knee-height fence had (rather predictably) been invaded and dug-up by the chickens. There were more urgent tasks than to build a higher fence so the chickens were left to enjoy their dirt baths and snacking whilst we hoped that at least some of the seeds would remain in the soil. Another thing noted was that one of the older white chickens looked somehow very dirty, especially her back end, which was smeared black. Then we realized that the chickens, who had been left to roam freely in our absence, had been feeding on and, consequentially, excreting mulberries!
The next surprise was to find one of the red hens high up in the mulberry tree, eating directly off the branches. She´d developed the habit of abandoning her companions and hopping down into the neighbour´s enclosure in search of a more varied diet, returning only at dusk. As for the teenage chickens, before we went away the solution found for their grazing needs was to cut a 20cm square hole in their fence, which we reasoned at the time, the chickens would learn to recognize but the predators wouldn´t. On our return we found most if not all still alive, but more than half had moved house and were roosting with the adults in their hut on the eastern fenceline.
Mid may we decided to throw a party to celebrate the Civil part of our wedding. Our good friend and only English Gentleman of Cittanova Mr Styan assisted the groom in slaughtering the cockerel that had been well-fed during the christmas holidays. He came back shaking all over from this first experience of blood on his hands: he said the cock just didn´t want to die. I couldn´t work out if it was the wild asparagus that we cooked it with or the high levels of adrenaline that must have been pumping in those last moments for all involved, but the meat had an unpleasant strong taste that it was difficult for the guests to compliment, infact sadly some portions were wasted.
No apricots or cherries this spring.
June was mulberry time, and what a task! The six-year old tree was producing year on year bigger and ever bigger yields, difficult to believe if not with your own eyes, and the other five smaller trees were steadily catching up.
Most of the fruit went to waste but we did what we could, spending an hour most days filling a basket with about 3kg of berries to be either eaten (a small part, because the taste is quite bland), sundried and then glazed as wedding favours, made into jam, syrup or juice. Apparently they have great health benefits so it would be worth researching them to make more of this abundant resource. It was about this time that two of the adolescent hens, of the featherless-necked variety, started to lay their first very small eggs. This was especially good because the older hens started to follow suit, leading to one of the red hens developing her sitter instinct, which she kept for several months, but more on that later.
There is a pear tree planted about 5 years ago along the southern border next to the building which has not as yet made any fruit, even though it has plenty of flowers. So the hero of this story decided to buy a small pear tree and place it near the bigger tree in the hope that the two would ´cross-pollinate´´. The unexpected result was that the bigger tree remained barren while the smaller tree started to produce lots of fruit, of which three went on to reach maturity and were eaten in june. They were of the crunchy rather than sweet variety.
In the late spring the peach tree in the chicken enclosure was heavily laden with fruit. In June of the previous year during one of the frequent migrations to Munich a friend was entrusted to look after the land and see what could be harvested. He reported that the same tree had been full of fruit (for the first time) and that he´d watched it like a hawk as they ripened. But from one day to the next the fruit had gone from being hard on the tree to maggot-infested on the ground. We were able to watch this tragic phenomena ourselves this year. What happened is that the fly eggs were laid, hatched and the larvae started eating before the fruit was ripe, when it was infact not at all tasty, so that by the time the fruit was actually worth eating it was too late. I was able to salvage enough parts of around 5kg of peaches to make just 1 and a half jars of the very most delicious jam imaginable. We may experiment with netting next year.
Regarding the bees a further post may be needed.
Time to talk about the sitter chicken. Before we left again at the beginning of July to make more intensive and final church wedding preparations, we noticed that the sitter chicken was getting confused by the pile of eggs mounting up in the box next to hers, and was undecided as to which to sit on. She sat on one pile for about 20 days without hardly eating or drinking and then abandoned her potential brood for the other one. We didn´t want to intervene with nature especially as this was the first time and there was much to learn by observing. But silly chicken! When a few days later we cracked open all the cold abandoned eggs we found all but one were rotten, and the ´but one´ was a perfectly formed chick ready for hatching, dead. What a pity. Nothing came of her brooding instinct that summer as she kept repeating the same mistake.
Very few plums this summer.
We returned at the beginning of August with an entourage of british and australian guests to find there´d been a chicken massacre. There were piles of feathers leading back to a hole in the north west corner of the fence. Only the most intelligent, the tree-climbing fence-sitting red hen had survived, and had now taken to sleeping on the roof of her house.
There was a week of monsoon weather lasting as long as our guests´ holiday, where the humidity built up and up every morning and was released in a violent downpour accompanied by thunder and lightning every early afternoon, so there wasn´t much that could be done on the land let alone the beach. But the vegetables presumably benefitted from this treatment, as we had the beginnings of a good harvest of aubergines, as well as the first tomatoes and cucumbers that kept going into the autumn.
The Nicaraguan corn didn´t look very happy though; when it came to harvest the cobs in the autumn, there were about as many kernels as were planted.
It was also blackberry season, and it seemed only proper to make at least one Blackberry Crumble with custard.
The earlier berries were sweet but most of the later berries had a slight bitter aftertaste, so not really a consolation for all the thorns.
In the autumn the Great Mattress Experiment began. There was a large pile of cut and dry ferns accumulating in the building that the keeper of this record was saving for a special use. He had the pragmatic idea to save money, resolve his back problems and ´disinfect the living space´ all-in-one by making fern mattresses for our marital bed. The task was given to Mr Styan, but those gentleman´s hands had as little experience with artisan craft as they did with poultry, and so a couple of hours later the fruit of his labour didn´t so much resemble mattresses as bags of straw.
But with a woman´s touch and two days of work to remove all the larger stems, evenly distribute the mass and keep it in place with buttons, the mattresses could be called such and were ready to use, and were used throughout the winter months until the 40 weeks of waiting were over, the human embryo hatched and after some reflection we decided to do at least one thing in the more conventional manner by buying a matress. From a shop. But let´s not skip ahead.
In the autumn there was a lot to be foraged. We were able to identify a very common weed on the land as being Chenopodium album (Fat Hen/ Farinello comune), relative of and higher in iron and protein than spinach. There was also an endless supply of nettles for who had the patience to gather them. Along the roads walnuts were rolling unnoticed into the kerbs, and one of my last activities before the weight of pregnancy stopped me was to walk the long journey home filling my basket to the brim.
There were hazelnuts for the taking both on the land and in the surrounding hedgerows. To make up for the disappointing yield of figs available on the land, ther were more than enough ripe ones hanging down at picking height over allotment fences throughout the local area to make a large batch of ´Cittanova Fig Jam´ for personal consumption and to give away as gifts. The pomegranates and Sharon fruit (cachi), on the other hand, were not destined for jars but for our mouths. The tree gave us about 20 wonderful pomegranates this year, that is, 20 wonderful snacks!
The Cachi tree was even more fruitful and carried on well into the season, but it was a real battle to catch them ripe before the flies and ants did. As time went on and the air temperature dropped we tended more towards picking them when they were firm, pale orange and opaque and ripening them to deep orange, soft and translucent over the course of several days at home. BILD 7759 BILD7709 The only fruit-giving Fejoa bush made alot of tiny fruits which made up for their unimpressive dimensions by being so tasty you could even eat the skin.
As for the sunflower seeds and maize that were sown in may on the patch of earth used for recreational purposes by the chickens, what we learned from the experience is that chickens like maize more than sunflowers. Of the former no trace was left, but of the latter we had a wonderful harvest of dinner plate sized flowers full of seeds that were admittedly rather smaller than what you buy in the shops but nevertheless a good and tasty after-dinner pastime lasting into the following year.
October is becoming known to us as Quince Jelly time and this year there was the fruit of two trees to play with. But before making the classic jelly we thought we´d try making ´membrillo´, which uses the whole fruit. The pulp and juice are reduced on the stove before being cooked in the oven, after which the mass is cut up into cubes and refrigerated to be eaten with cheese. Afterwards we made Quince Jelly, which uses just the juice, containing natural pectin, plus sugar. Two years ago the fruit pulp that is a by-product of the jelly-making process got made into a sort of icecream, whereas this time we opted for quince compote. It was a lot of hard work because most of the fruit was more or less pitted with black spots that penetrated the flesh and had to be cut away. Thankfully the taste was not affected.
One of the chestnut trees along the northern border made one very fat chestnut.
November was the time for making final preparations before our two month absence. The brains behind this blog had spent many hours throughout the autumn patiently ploughing earth destined to become vegetable patches for the spring harvest, raiding local supermarket carparks for brown cardboard boxes that formed the first ´layer´ of the raised beds and acted first as weed deterrant and later as mulch. He was inspired by the ´synergic gardens´ that have gained greater popularity in more northern areas o the mediterranean, but it is perhaps worth a separate post to go into more detail. To summarize, among the linear banks, seedlings of the following varieties were bought from a local agricultural shop and planted in a carefully thought out way Cauliflower, Cabbage, Onions, Fennel, Leek, Romain lettuce, curly lettuce, broccoli , Celery, Peas.
To colonize the bare earth, buckwheat, cress, fenugreek and mustard seeds were evenly sown over the whole length of the earth bank.
Te father-to-be worked very hard in those last days before leaving the country, wanting to ensure a plentiful supply of spring vegetables for his expanding family. It was a risky investment of time and money, to leave a garden alone for a time period that could end up being as long as 2 1/2 months if the human embryo were to hatch very late or if there were any resulting complications that could make our return to Italy unwise. But his method was very carefully studied, enough had been planted to afford losing some of the yield to slugs, and some persistent rainfall could be relied on, so it was a gamble he was willing to make…and on that note let´s leave 2015 and see what fortune 2016 brings…