Letting the Hens Out

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Today was such a joyous day, after more than three months we were allowed to let our flock of hens out of their houses. They have been confined for over three months on the instruction of the Department of Agriculture along with all poultry in these islands because of the threat of Avian flu in Europe. We’ve been feeding them indoors, bringing them up the end of greenhouse crops – kale, bolted lettuce and salad greens but it’s not the same as being able to romp around and range freely in the sunlight.

You can’t imagine the excitement when we opened the popper in the door of the Palais des Poulets. At first, they were bewildered and then they made a dash for freedom and skipped out into the sunlight to range freely on the grass that is so so important to their wellbeing.

It was a joy to watch them scratching enthusiastically for worms and grubs and jumping into the compost skip to forage for scraps – no need for a brown bin here, the hens eat the vegetable scraps and then we have beautiful eggs a few days later and furthermore the hen manure and straw bedding is added to the compost heap. A brilliant activator which when it eventually breaks down into humus is added to the soil to increase the fertility to grow more wholesome fresh vegetables and herbs – a beautiful virtuous triangle and no waste.
See video link
I love poultry and encourage anyone who will listen to consider getting a little flock of hens, four or five in a little chicken coop in your garden would provide an adequate egg supply for most households. The coop can be moved around your lawn every few days, the hens do the mowing and their droppings will fertilise your grass so its win win all the way. Kids of all ages love hens, they are friendly and entertaining plus children get to learn a little more about how their food is produced, recycling and the value of compost. They will love collecting the freshly laid eggs and enjoy boiled eggs with ‘soldiers’ – an almost forgotten flavour.
Where to find hens and what to buy? For free range production try to find heritage breeds. Here at the Ballymaloe Cookery School we have about 600 hens in several flocks. We buy day old chicks from Willie Johnston in Armagh (www.johnstonspoultry.com and O Leary Poultry in Macroom (0879697939) who hatch organic chicks. These traditional breeds are hardier for outdoor production. Occasionally a hen hatches out a little clutch of chicks – we had some just in time for Easter to the delight of the grandchildren and their friends.

Always buy from a reputable source and make sure they have been vaccinated.
The arucanas lay bluey green eggs, the Sussex or Leghorn white, Rhode Island red and the Marans dark brown – all are beautiful in their own way. Eggs are a perfect a rich source of protein. They contain vitamin B2, B12, Vitamin D, selenium, iodine, a powerhouse of disease busting nutrients. Two eggs provide a simple nourishing fulfilling supper enough for most people with a salad and some good bread. Excellent value for money.

If you have a little surplus your friends will gladly accept them or you can sell them at your local country or Farmers Market.
From the cooks point of view they are immensely versatile not just as an ingredient but as an emulsifier in sauces like Hollandaise and Béarnaise but also a binder and enrichment in cakes and pastries.
I did a column about eggs for Easter but one could easily write a whole book on eggs and many have so here are a few more ways to enjoy your beautiful fresh eggs.

Hot Tips
Skibbereen or Bantry Farmers Market often have live hens, ducks, geese and guinea fowl for sale. Alternatively contact O’ Leary Poultry at Skibbereen Market on 087 9697939 or Meynhaus at Bantry’s market 087 2208061.

GIY HQ Courses, Classes and Events
Check out the course schedule at the GIY HQ in Waterford……Beginners Guide to Growing, Soil Fertility, Managing Pests and Disease, Kids Club and Gardening lessons….www.giy.ie. Tel: 051 584422

Litfest 2017
The excitement is building here at Litfest HQ – watch out for is Sumayya Usmani, a native of Pakistan, a writer and cookery teacher based in Glasgow. She specialises in the cuisine of Pakistan and travels regularly to her homeland. Her debut book Summers Under the Tamarind Tree won the Best First Cookbook category in the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. Sumayya will give a cookery demonstration at the Ballymaloe Cookery School on Sunday May 21st at 10.00am. Don’t miss this rare opportunity. www.litfest.ie

Support Cór Cois Farraige’s annual charity concert in aid of Time for Tilara on Sunday May 14th at the Garryvoe Hotel, 8pm. Tickets are €10.00 available at local outlets in East Cork and at the door. clairewhelan2@eircom.net

Parmesan Custards with Anchovy Toasts

Serves 8

250ml (9fl ozs/generous 1 cup) cream
250ml (9 fl ozs/generous 1 cup) milk
4 organic eggs
100g (3 1/2 ozs) finely grated Parmesan or Coolea Cheese
salt, freshly ground pepper and a good pinch of cayenne
melted butter

Anchovy Butter
6 anchovy fillets
25g (1ozs/1/4 stick) unsalted butter

4 slices of good quality white yeast bread

8 deep ovenproof pots or ramekins (75ml/3fl ozs) (we use shot glasses)
bain-marie

Preheat the oven to 150ºC/300°F/Gas Mark 2.

Whisk the cream and milk with the egg yolks and the finely grated cheese. Season with salt, freshly ground pepper and a pinch of cayenne. Whisk again. Brush the inside of the pots with melted butter. Divide the mixture between the pots.

Fill a bain-marie with hot water, put the pots into the bain-marie, the water should come about 2/3 way up the sides. Cover the tops with a sheet of silicone paper. Depending on the depth of the ramekin, bake for 30-45 minutes in the preheated oven or until the mixture has just set. A skewer inserted into the centre should come out clean.

Meanwhile, make the anchovy butter.
Mash the anchovies finely with a fork, add the butter and mix well.

Just before serving, toast the bread quickly on both sides. Spread the anchovy butter sparingly on 2 slices of bread and make into sandwiches with the other slices. Press down to seal, trim off the crusts. Cut each in half crosswise and then cut into thin fingers. Put a pot or ramekin on a plate. Arrange a little trellis of anchovy toasts on the side, add a teaspoon. Serve immediately.

Variation:- Wild Garlic Custards
Serves 8

3 tablespoons wild garlic, finely chopped

Add to the custard just before pouring into the ramekins, serve with a few fingers of plain toast.

Leek Flamiche

There are many variations on this theme, some have no cheese, others no bacon. Similar leek tarts and pies are made in Belgium, France and many parts of the UK, including Wales and Cornwall. One can use the filling to make into a gorgeous pie with pastry underneath and on top, or just on top. Either way it is delicious.
No need to re-cook cooked ham
Serves 6-8

A pre-baked 22.5cm tart shell made with
225g shortcrust pastry – made with
175g flour
75g butter
1 egg yolk and a little water

450g white part of leeks, sliced in 1cm thick rings
50g butter
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 eggs or 1 large egg and one egg yolk
300ml single cream
100g rindless streaky raw bacon or ham cut into lardons
75g Gruyère, grated

22.5cm tart tin with removable base.

Preheat the oven to 180C/gas mark 4

Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan over a gentle heat. When it foams, add the sliced leeks. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper, toss, cover and cook gently until soft and tender but not coloured, about 8-10 minutes. Drain if necessary and allow to cool. Cut the bacon or bacon or ham into 5mm lardons. Heat a little extra virgin olive oil in a frying pan over a medium heat, add bacon and cook for 5-6 minutes or until slightly golden and cooked through.
Meanwhile whisk the eggs and cream together, stir in the cooled leeks and ham or bacon and most of the cheese. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper.
Spoon into the pre-baked tart shell, (It will be full to the top). Sprinkle the remainder of the cheese on top and bake in the pre-heated oven for 35-40 minutes or until just set in the centre and golden on top.
Serve warm.

Coconut and Apricot Fingers

Makes 24

110g (4oz) butter
110g (4oz) caster sugar
1 organic egg
flour
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

275 g (10 oz) apricot jam

Coconut topping
1 organic egg
75g (3oz) coconut
110g (4oz) caster sugar

1 large Swiss roll tin 25 x 38cm (10 x 15in)

Preheat the oven to 180ºC/350ºF/gas mark 4. Cream the butter, add the caster sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Add the egg and ½ teaspoon of vanilla extract. Beat well and then stir in the flour. Brush the tin with melted butter. Spread the mixture over the base, then spread the apricot jam evenly over the base. Whisk the egg, then fold in the caster sugar and desiccated coconut.

Bake in the preheated oven for 25-30 minutes. Cool. Cut into fingers.

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Darina Allen
By Darina Allen

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