31 May 2013


I've been testing my brain a bit recently, by working towards publishing academic papers from my PhD, finished 12 whole years ago! There's lots to catch up on in the field - who's published what in the meantime, mainly - and some detective work to be done to remember just exactly what I did myself.

But there are really some brains in this family. My husband, for example. I made him a shopping list recently, and even ordered it in the order he'd come across the items as he wove his way through the supermarket aisles. He was also shopping for a trip he was going on with friends, so he added his items to the bottom of the list.

You can tell what he wrote.

Sometimes I come home from the supermarket and have forgotten something that was actually on the list. This guy comes home with everything, regardless a list this utterly - I struggle to find the word - tortured, perhaps? Certainly shambolic. Now that's brains.

20 May 2013

Misty moisty mornings

The end of autumn is here, and winter approaching.

As a result, we are absolutely loving our pyroclassic fire. Worth every cent. Bring on the real cold!

17 May 2013

Backyard chickens (new ones!) - or urban agriculture?

Today I purchased three new brown shaver chickens. They're about 4 months old and will soon start laying me lots of winter eggs! (Most chickens stop laying when the days get short, but because these ones are just coming into lay I think I'll be lucky. I'm planning the sponge cakes already.)

Check out their tiny, pale combs - these will get large and red
once they hit puberty, which should be very soon.
They're terrified. I've shut them in the coop by themselves, so that my two older ladies - one brown shaver and one grandmotherly black orpington - can check them out through the wire mesh without doing any harm, initially at least. 

I know there will be some violence when they inevitably come together - I've seen it before. Already my old brown shaver (who still gives me an egg almost every day, bless her - otherwise she'd be gone by now) has been looking very fluffed up and has been firing the odd peck through the wire.

I've also been reading a paper* co-authored by my old PhD supervisor, Professor Marian Dawkins, about just this issue. Chickens live in very stable social groups, but have 'establishment fights'. Basically they fight - which involves lots of head-gazing and aggressive pecks to the head - to sort out who's dominant. The reason, says the paper, is to establish it once and for all at the beginning, thereby avoiding the energy that would otherwise regularly be required to squabble over resources (e.g. the feeding trough).

This approach is intimately associated with being able to recognise who's who. Hens are good at recognising each other, it says, but they can only do so by scrutinising each other very closely - they need to be just 10-30cm away. If they can't recognise each other, there's no point in having establishment fights, because for them to protect against the need to have ongoing future fights, you have to know who you've beaten and vice versa.

Let's hope there's not too much bloodshed. I purposely left the older birds in the minority: there's two of them vs. three new ones.

Our cat, looking alarmingly like a grey lion - and certainly deeply predatory - has been scaring the new girls also. The old ones have put him well and truly in his place, but the new ones don't know that yet. He's firmly inside with me for the day now, and happy with the situation by the look of him.

Meanwhile I've been flicking through this Urban Farming book that I got from the public library. I've got a friend interested in starting 'Urban agriculture' projects in our city. What I'm trying to figure out is how it differs from having a big vege garden with a few chooks in it. So far I can't see any difference, but let me know if there is one! If not, perhaps our family can call ourselves urban farmers. It feels like an overstatement, but it definitely feels like fun.

NB: My hens lay big eggs which, at our local Farmer's market, are called 'monster eggs' and sell for $10.50 a dozen. CHOKE. My three new ladies cost me $15 each and I expect to pay about $10 a month for food for all five of them. Even this winter I'll get over 20 eggs a week (although the young birds' eggs will be small to start with), and in summer probably 25 or more. So if you are thinking about getting your own chooks, you'll be helping your grocery bill beautifully.

*Pagel, M & Dawkins, MS (1997) Peck orders and group size in laying hens: 'futures contracts' for non-agression Behavioural Processes 40, pp13-25.

12 May 2013

Mother's Day in the sun

I, who come from a family in which absolutely everyone has dark hair, have given birth to a red head. It's only obvious in the sun, which was in ample supply on this late autumn Sunday.

Here she has just finished counting out the $8 we needed to get into a cat show. Anna's been wanting to go for years, but it always falls on Mother's day, and usually we go to my mother on that day.

My first priority for the day, however, was one of Hamilton's greatest places of good food: the Sunday morning Farmer's market. I particularly love the huge 'sweet pointer' red capsicums and this week plan to use some of them to make a chutney using a recipe out of last month's NZ House and Garden magazine.

Today for the first time we tried their fresh fish. It was scooped out of the Raglan sea only on Friday,  the sellers told me, and it REALLY tasted like that too. Yahoo... I am so sick of semi-stinky supermarket fish!!! Fish-on-Sunday-night is the new routine at our house.

The market's also the place to spot stylish bikes.

To choose my Mother's day present, yesterday I'd strolled about 250 metres down the road from our house to another home of good food in this city: French shop La Cave

Our children are growing, and so are their appetites, so for a while now I've wanted a bigger lasagne dish. I have more than one I can fill, so it was a bit of an indulgence to want a single big one.

But I fell for this Emile Henry ceramic one, generously sized, made in France and very much on sale. 

This week it will be filled with a big beef lasagne made with tomato sauce from roasted Farmer's market tomatoes. And stewed gravy beef. Sounds strange, but it's my new discovery - I put a large amount of stewing steak such as gravy beef in my crock pot, cover it with water and cook it for hours. It makes lots of beef stock for stews and soups, and I use the meat as I once would have minced meat. It is SO much nicer, and leaner. 

But tonight, as I said, we had fresh fish, and the table was graced with flowers my little girl bought me from the Farmer's market for Mother's day, with her own money.

8 May 2013

Cinnamon doughnuts for a picky eater

It's ironic that a boy who has never been easy to feed is somewhat of a gourmand (in that he prized good food, not that he eats to excess - he never does). For his birthday he wants a food party, with his favourite dishes to share with his friends, and his request for the school holidays was to make cinnamon doughnuts.

It was with the help of this 1960 retro cookbook discovered in a church op shop that I found the recipe. There are plenty more old goodies in the for me to try also. About five types of gingerbread, for a start!

(If you're looking closely at this,  we missed out the jam.)

 They were deep fried, which scared me a bit as I haven't done that for about 20 years. The children rolled the fresh doughnuts in a mixture of cinnamon and sugar; although the recipe called for just sugar, Jack insisted on cinnamon, a spice we all love.

They hit the mark, and by lunchtime the next day, 31 doughnuts were gone. We couldn't eat them all the evening they were made, said Jack. "That's enough! We don't want to overeat!"

Regarding the eating personality pictured above: once I read a book called 'Eleni' who featured a similar personality, this time a girl. I can't recommend the book because although it was amazing, it was the saddest book I've ever read. It's a true story.

Eleni's daughter was like Jack. She loved the best quality food and couldn't bring herself to eat things she didn't like. The family was living in a time of famine (due to a communist occupation) and she couldn't force herself to eat the meagre scraps they could find. Eventually she was drafted by the communists, along with the other teenage girls of the village, and taken for military training in another village. Their food was a big common pot of soupy stuff, and although she was by now starving to death, she couldn't eat it.

The communists ejected her from their army, because a soldier in such poor condition was no good to them.

So when you say 'Eat it or starve', there is indeed the odd person who starves! We're working on it though. Our extremely lean young man's 'normal food' repertoire is increasing every month.

6 May 2013

Happy chickens

We swung by my friend Judy's house last week. She has the most wonderful place for her four brown shaver hens.

They live happily in this under-cover area next to Judy's driveway, full of native trees and shrubs. Given that these birds are descended from jungle fowl, this is fitting, and the way they were really 'meant' to live. They're vulnerable to attack from above, of course (hawks etc), and they do get a fright when something wing-like flaps above them (pity mine live so close to the washing line).

Judy also has an open grassy area in their enclosure, which she 'mucks out' with a rake. Chickens, of course, love a bit of grass. Their coop is there, too.

They must be happy there - brown shavers are quite agile and could easily jump over a fence this height. No thanks, they say, we'll stay - this is great!

4 May 2013

The beach, for now

We had a great beach walk a week or so ago. A sand bank made for a lot of fun, as the children climbed up, jumped off, climbed up, jumped off.

As they grow older - Jack will be 10 in a few months - I am increasingly aware of this time ending. This time where they are still children and abandon themselves to childlike things, happy in Mama and Daddy's company. Already they are frequently wanting to be with friends, but still there are times like this when our family is happy - delighted, in fact - to be alone with each other.

3 May 2013

Beeswax beauty

In preparation for a visit from my brother - the other person in the world who adores this sideboard as much as me (it's an old family one) - I got out some old beeswax polish and got to work.

Soon I noticed the smell. It was rancid, being about 10 years old. The ingredients were beeswax, vegetable oil and lavendar oil.

It sounded very much like the lip balm I'd made the day before. So I switched old for new, and the lip balm brought up the old oak beautifully.

I had to point out its gleaming status to my brother, sadly.
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