A year on

This week, we will have been keeping chickens for one year. Although to some this won’t seem like a momentous occasion, we have learned a great deal and have had such a lovely time with our little friends that we will certainly be celebrating this small anniversary. Our chickens have become a huge part of our lives so that now it would feel strange not to have them with us.

A year ago, we agreed that as we had a nice big garden, and had both wanted to keep chickens for a while, we should go ahead and get them. We worked hard to level the garden and planted grass seed in preparation for when the chickens were grown and would need lots of space for frolicking.


Around the same time my parents were getting a new shed so we gratefully took their old one away…re-assmbled it in our garden, gave it a lick of paint and a chicken shed was born!


After some research, we decided to buy our chickens from nearby Home Farm in Overton. This place is really idyllic; ducks, geese, chickens and pigs live happily side-by-side, with lots of space to play and run around in. I truly felt that the animals on the farm were living decent lives and being treated extremely well, and the owners were delightfully welcoming and helpful.

We explained that we were after three hens and a cockerel and the lovely farmer helped us pick out a Black Rock, a Rhode Island Red and two bantam silver-pencilled Wyandottes (one of which was the cockerel). They were all around eight weeks old so small enough to travel together in a box! Then they were introduced to their new home…


That ramp took a bit of negotiating!


It took us a bit of time but we finally agreed on names…


Queenie the Rhode Island Red and Verena the Black Rock.


Homie the bantam cockerel…


…and little Pearl, the smallest of them all.

The chickens’ first run was only small, as they themselves were tiny, and we wanted to make sure they were safe from the neighbours’ cats. We used chicken wire, bits of wood and bricks to make a small standing attached to the shed…


The photo above demonstrates what a chicken looks like when it has heard a train. Living right next to a railway, the chickens had to get used to hearing noisy trains thundering up and down the tracks, and for a while there was a lot of running around and hiding in the shed. But they got used to their new surroundings pretty quickly, and began to show us their funny personalities…


Here are Verena and Queenie doing what they do best: being nosey.


Pearl and Homie; flightly and cautious, and much less likely to be eaten by a fox!

We spent a lot of time with the chickens during the first few months, getting to know them and letting them get used to us. I realised just how funny, silly and incredibly cute chickens could be.


They lived in the small run happily for about three months, when a bout of feather-pecking made us realise they were growing fast and needed more space. Happily our big bare garden had, over the summer, become a lawn!


We quickly installed a high chicken wire fence along the garden next to the shed, and added chicken wire all the way around the garden. Then we released them into their new plot of land…


Needless to say, they loved it. Grass! Lots and lots of delicious new grass, which they loved scratching around in for grubs, and digging holes in to take dust baths. They also very much enjoyed the peas and beans we had recently planted around the edge of the garden. Hmph!


As Autumn approached they began to grow from young chicks to proper grown-up chickens, and we learned that they loved pasta, cucumber, mashed potato, blackberries and damsons…


Then, in around October, Queenie started laying! A month later, Pearl joined in, although her eggs were a lot smaller.


Throughout the Autumn and Winter, we continued to spend time in the garden with the chickens. This was easy with all the space they had, and they would often “help” me to collect eggs and clear out their nest boxes…


Then, without us really noticing, it became apparent that Homie had grown into a beautiful cockerel!


As cockerels go, he’s not very authoritative – probably because he is a bantam and has two large chickens to contend with in Queenie and Verena. But he does his best, and I love to see him gallantly clucking for the others to come over when he finds something delicious to eat. What a little gentleman!


In the Spring, Verena joined in the egg party, and began to lay green eggs! Here they are altogether, with a Lego man for scale…


The next development came a couple of months ago, when we decided to give the chickens a little bit more room again, and different things to jump onto and explore. Although they love grass, we felt that they should have more space to investigate; trees, rocks and branches. So we sectioned off a further part of the garden with chicken wire and let them in…


At one point we thought we’d lost Verena, but we eventually found her nesting in the privet!


We began to find eggs not only in the nest boxes, but also dotted around in the undergrowth. The chickens certainly settled into this part of the garden very quickly, which we think means they like it there.


And that brings us up to now. Chickens are certainly a challenge; we are currently negotiating with a broody hen and trying to ensure that Queenie doesn’t eat all the food. We have to keep an eye out for the neighbours’ cats and have fashioned a homemade water-squirter. But the benefits of keeping chickens far outweigh any negative points. We currently have eggs every day, and are eating a lot of cake and omelettes. They are incredibly funny, and excellent company. There is nothing better on a sunny day than taking a chair into the garden and relaxing with them. They even have a little friend, who we often see hanging out with them of an afternoon…


We are planning to get more chickens in future, and thinking about hatching some of Pearl’s eggs into tiny little grey-and-white bantams. I am very grateful that we have the space and time to keep them. If you have that, too, I highly recommend getting some. You’ll be surprised at how attached you become. They may even be your new best friends.

Snick it

I work in a library, and we are allowed to order in books. A while ago, I was undertaking my customary Amazon browse for new crafty and/or baking books, and I came aross Tea with Bea, the Beas of Bloomsbury cookbook. Oh, hello beautiful cover! That was enough to snare me, really. I ordered it and a month later it was in my happy little hands.

I was really, really not disappointed, and nine months on I still hold the book to ransom (on extended loan, of course). I’ve marked the pages of the recipes I want to make, and let me tell you, there are a lot of yellow post-its sticking out of the top of this book. I started at the beginning, missing only the first recipe (ultimate chocolate chip cookies – don’t worry, they’ve been marked) in favour of the tantalisingly-named Snickerdoodles.

I had heard of these unassuming little biscuits, but never before tasted one. The recipe is brilliantly simple, so I had a go at them in preparation for knitting club at my house. They were delicious: delicate, vanilla-y biscuits, with a wonderful coating of cinnamon sugar. These are unassuming little guys, but man are they moreish. The amount of cinnamon and sugar stated in the recipe for dipping made quite a lot more than I needed, so I ended up with a jar of it left over. But that can only be a good thing because now I have no excuse not to make these delicious biscuits again.

And as with all great biscuits, they inspire terrible puns: why not approach your friends, proffering a plate of them, and say “Hands up. You’re snicked.” And you know what? They really will be.

Snickerdoodles

Ingredients:
225g (8oz) unsalted butter, softened
315g (11oz) caster sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
350g (12oz) plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt

For dipping:
2 tbsp ground cinnamon
300g (10oz) caster sugar

– Using an electric mixer or whisk, beat the butter and sugar together until the mixture turns almost white in colour and is light and fluffy.

– Slowly incorporate the eggs, one at a time. Scrape the batter from the side of the bowl and beat for another minute. Add the vanilla extract and mix.

– Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together. With the mixer on slow speed, add the flour mixture to the butter mixture. Beat until just combined and a dough forms. Wrap the dough in clingfilm and refrigerate for 15 minutes.

– Meanwhile, mix the cinnamon and sugar (for dipping) in a shallow bowl.

– Preheat the oven to 160°C/315°F/Gas mark 4 and line two baking sheets with baking paper.

– Pull off pieces of dough the size of golf balls and roll into neat balls with your hands. Slightly flatten each ball into a disc with the palm of your hand and dip each one thoroughly in the cinnamon sugar. Place on the prepared baking sheets, spaced apart.

– Bake in the preheated oven for 13-16 minutes until the edges are slightly golden and the tops look dry and matt.

– Remove from the oven and let cool on the baking sheets for a few minutes. Transfer the snickerdoodles to a wire rack and let rest until ready to eat.

Grown-up knitting

A couple of Christmases ago, I spotted something I really, REALLY wanted: a knitting pattern book. Although I own many of these (and hold many more from the library to ransom), this one was different. Rowan magazine number 48. Here’s the cover:


I mean, come on! Look at that beautiful woman, with her gorgeous scarf and those pretty flowers in her hair and that dreamy expression. When I first saw this magazine online on the Rowan website, I sat and gawped my way through it. There are some seriously cute patterns in there, my favourites being those in the ‘Russian Doll’ collection, featuring the lovely lady up there. It’s all about romantic fair isle and traditional folkloric designs, which basically means lots of interesting patterns in dreamy hues of lilac, ivy, teal, ochre and plum. Just my cup of tea! I immediately put the magazine on my Christmas list, and my brother dutifully bought it for me. He’s a good egg!

There was one particular pattern that caught my eye out of all the others, the Dominika cardigan. A stunning draped cardigan, very elegant and featuring all manner of interesting patterns such as checks, scallops, flowers, hearts and moss stitch stripes. And the colours! I was smitten and itching to make it, so right after Christmas I spent an insane amount of money on wool and set to work…


This first bit of one of the front panels probably took me a good few hours to figure out, while I got the hang of the pattern. There were a heck of a lot of little squares to follow! But once I got it into it I was away. The chart changed so often that it kept the knitting varied and interesting, and it was lovely seeing the pattern and colours come together. The sheer size of this project did seem very daunting at first but one step at a time I chipped away, finding the rhythm of the different patterns rather relaxing. I must admit that over the months I did have a few breaks, taking a breather to work on something else when I felt a bit cardigan-ed out. But sure enough, it grew…and grew…


And ten months, two front panels, a back panel, two sleeves and a very fancy drapey moss-stitch collar later, it was time to block and sew the pieces together…


And then it was DONE!


This is a pretty advanced knitting project, but perhaps the one I feel most proud of to date. Funny how that works, huh? I learnt a lot about pattern-reading (fair isle, intarsia and instructional), tension and gauge, but also about how far I will go to make something I love. At the beginning I half-expected that I might give up at some point and decide to “come back to it later”, but I surprised myself with my determination.

Next from Rowan magazine #48 I have my eye on a beautiful calf-length navy housecoat designed by Martin Storey, with checks and flowers and roses on the collar. Sounds a bit scary, yes, a proper Grown-up Knitting Project! But then again I guess I’m a proper grown-up knitter now.

The One

Ok, guys! That search you’ve been having for The Best Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe Ever? Well, you can stop now. It’s right here. The winning combination of two different types of flour, two different types of sugar, vanilla, chocolate and salt, creates a depth of flavour I’ve never tasted in any other cookie.

These cookies regularly accompany us to music festivals, where delicious snacks are essential to keep us going amid the, ahem, gruelling tasks of watching bands, drinking gin and assembling fancy dress costumes. I wrap the cookies individually in newspaper, and, I’m going to be honest with you here: the amount of butter in them always turns the newspaper grey and translucent. The first time I saw it I was slightly freaked out, but I’ve come to terms with it now. Surely the point of cookies is that they’re indulgent? A bit naughty? Downright decadent? Well, then.

This recipe originally came from The New York Times, but I swear by Molly Wizenberg’s adapted version of it, which you can find here. Molly is an amazing food writer; you should definitely read her book. It will make you laugh, cry and want to eat lots of cake.

There are a fair few ingredients in this recipe, but it’s absolutely worth it. Whether you have a gruelling festival coming up or not. Just don’t think too much about that newspaper.

Chocolate Chip Cookies

Ingredients:
240g (8½oz) plain flour
240g (8½oz) bread flour
1¼ tsp bicarbonate of soda
1½ tsp baking powder
1½ tsp salt
280g (10oz) unsalted butter, softened
280g (10oz) light brown sugar
240g (8oz) granulated sugar
2 eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract
280g (10oz) plain chocolate, chopped into small chunks

– Combine flours, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in a bowl. Whisk well, then set aside.

– Using a mixer fitted with paddle attachment, cream butter and sugars until very light and fluffy, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Mix in the vanilla.

– Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Reduce the mixer speed to low, then add dry ingredients, and mix until just combined. (Unless you have a plastic guard that sits around the rim of the bowl, this will make a big mess at first, with flour flying everywhere. I found that carefully holding a dish towel around the top of the bowl helped a lot.)

– Add the chocolate chips and mix briefly to incorporate. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap, and chill for 24 to 36 hours.

– When you’re ready to bake, preheat oven to 176°C/350°F/Gas mark 4. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

– Place six mounds of dough on the baking sheet, making sure to space them evenly. Sprinkle lightly with sea salt, and bake until golden brown but still soft, 15 to 20 minutes. Transfer the baking sheet to a wire rack for 10 minutes, then transfer the cookies onto the rack to cool a bit more. Repeat with remaining dough.

Beside the seaside

Earlier this week, Jim and I took a day out to visit the North Wales coast. It’s such a pretty part of the country, with its wide, flat roads, miles of promenade and fairgrounds. We were very lucky with the weather, and spent a lovely afternoon wandering around the charity shops in Colwyn Bay, followed by fish and chips and slot machine fun in Rhyl. Man, those things are addictive!

To see more photos of our day hop on over to Flickr.

Lately

Realising: that I’m not quite over the waistcoat obsession yet

Enjoying: the company of our garden resident, Mr Baby Wild Rabbit

Welcoming: a new member of the family from Jim’s childhood. SUPER TURTLE!

Working: on a project for our bedroom wall

Enjoying: being beside the seaside along the North Wales coast

A woolly wedding present

Last December, one of Jim’s best friends, Kevin, got married. He and his wife-to-be, Joanna, requested that instead of wedding presents, people donate money to their honeymoon fund. Like true annoying friends, we ignored this request, because we felt that we had to MAKE them something unique that would remind them of their special day forever.

We thought long and hard about what we could make…a blanket, maybe? But I had already made one for my friend Penny when she got married. Matching waistcoats? Bit weird. Ooh, how about a knitted cushion with their faces on it!?

BINGO.

We set to work scouring Facebook for a photograph of Kevin and Joanna that was both cute and flattering, and settled on this one:

Jim then worked his magic on Photoshop; zooming in, making the photo monochrome and putting it into a grid for me to knit. Kevin and Joanna suddenly became strange pixelly versions of themselves. But if you have ever tried knitting a picture straight from a grid, you’ll know that the image will distort slightly, becoming wider. This is because in a grid the squares are, well, square, but knitted stitches are wider than they are tall. I was quite worried about giving Kevin and Joanna a wedding present that made them look fat, but luckily Jim again worked his magic, stretching the grid to give them nice tall heads:

Then it was over to me for the knitting part. I thought it would be wise to stick to two colours so there wouldn’t be too much going on. As it was a Christmas wedding, I plumped for red and cream in the end. Nice and festive, and fairly safe just in case Kevin and Joanna weren’t fans of insane neon colours.

So I began to work through the grid, bottom up, knitting the grey squares in cream wool and the black ones in red…

Once I got going, it didn’t take too long to knit. It was so fun seeing Kevin and Joanna’s little faces appear in the wool, and before long, the front was done! We also threw a cute little heart in there for good measure.

As for the back, I thought it would be nice to include the date of the wedding, and maybe some more hearts. And stripes! Stripes are good. Basically I wanted Kevin and Joanna to have the option of turning the cushion around in case they got sick of looking at their own knitted faces. So I drew out their initials, some hearts and the date of the wedding on graph paper, and freestyled some stripes.

I decided to make the back as an envelope closure so Kevin and Joanna could take the cover of the cushion off to wash it. I found some nice big wooden buttons for this. Once the front and back were knitted, it was time to block them, sew them up…

…and voilà! A cushion fit for a lovely couple. This project was lots of fun, and Kevin and Joanna assured us that they loved it. Hooray! As a bonus, I now know how to take my friends’ faces and convert them into wool-based homewares. And that is a most excellent life skill, right?