We saw a fantastic deal on ducks at our local butcher – four for a tenner. They weren’t too big but we thought the price was too good to miss out on (it worked out about the quarter of the price of prepared meat).

The birds

The birds

The only problem was they were intact (aside from the shot wounds or broken necks); we had a long evening of plucking, eviscerating, cleaning and butchering the ducks, but at the end we had eight breasts, eight legs, a huge pot of carcasses for stock plus some interesting other edible bits: hearts, gizzards and liver.

Plucking the wing

Plucking the wing

The first stage was plucking a band around the wings which would allow us to cut them off later.

Removing the down

Removing the down

Next came the more general plucking of feathers; once the top feathers are pulled, there is a layer of dense down underneath. This got everywhere of course.

Pile of feathers

Pile of feathers

We wondered about using the feathers but adding them to the compost would probably have attracted foxes, so we bagged them up for disposal.


Finishing the pluck

Once the birds were plucked (the one above was the most successful!) we cleared up a bit and got ready for the evisceration, which we would need to do before we could butcher the meat.

Off with her head

Off with her head

The feet and wings came off first, then the head. This was the moment to pay some sort of muted respect to these beautiful iridescent birds. As meat goes, this is pretty happy stuff – one moment they were evidently stuffing their crops, then in a flash, oblivion. No lifelong corralling or drawn-out sadistic death.



Digging the organs out of the body cavity was next, using two probing fingers. First the gizzard (on the far right in the picture, more on that below); then the guts, being careful not to perforate them; the lungs; then finally the heart and liver.

Gizzards and hearts

Gizzards and hearts

The guts and lungs were discarded but we kept the gizzards and hearts and a bit of liver (though the liver was very fragile). We had a chicken the other day and will combine the leftover hearts and livers from all the birds in a dish.

Inside the gizzard

Inside the gizzard

Cleaning and preparing the gizzard was probably the most interesting and fiddly bit of work. You have to split the casing, then clean out the grit and other contents. The texture of the inside is remarkable, like a gnarly old heel or piece of crinkled leather.

Prepared gizzards

Prepared gizzards

You can see one of the gizzard linings on the bottom left, they are remarkable. Tough as old boots. This is carefully sliced off leaving some rich, deep burgundy gizzard meat.



We then had four gutted ducks, ready for filleting, along with a bunch of gizzard halves and some hearts and liver.

The fruit of labour

The fruit of labour

So that’s what we ended up with: eight legs for confit, eight breasts, a pot full of carcasses for stock, and a few bits of offal. About four hours’ work (and a ten quid outlay), but most of all a good lesson into the process and reality of meat preparation. I was a bit rubbish at plucking but I’m sure I’ll improve…

Published in: on October 21, 2013 at 10:07 am  Comments (2)  

Productive Land: Back and Forth

The blog entries on our Productive Land project dried up in Autumn, for a number of reasons. I’ll catch you up soon, beginning with last Autumn’s harvest and this year’s planting as soon as I can, but a major preoccupation has been keeping chickens. It’s been a mixture of joy and anguish so far, and right now it’s only the latter.

Our initial pair – Big Coopie and Little Coopie – arrived in September, and started laying in February. We were getting around ten fantastic eggs a week. However, the day run we had built was designed to keep them in, not to keep predators out. We were scrupulous about locking them up by dusk, but in the day we let them wander about inside their (mostly netted) pen. One morning, though, a fox got in – in broad daylight – and killed Little Coopie. Caught in the act, the fox fled, and Little Coopie died in the kitchen, probably of shock. After this, we resolved to only let them out in their pen under supervision. The rest of the time they would be locked away, safely.

We got two lovely little hens – Snowy, a Light Sussex, and Buffy (you’ve guessed it, a Buff Sussex) – a few weeks ago, and after a bit of initial tension with Big Coopie, they’d settled in and were having a whale of a time.

Then today, a hammer blow: a fox (or more than one) got into the coop itself, while it was locked – through the nesting box, whether by brute force or cunning I’m not sure. While the lock is supposed to be foxproof I think if enough force were applied it could slide open. Snowy and Buffy were taken – Snowy evidently made a run for it first, getting at least to the other side of the garden judging from the trail of white feathers – while Big Coopie must have stood and fought behind the cage, being killed and left there.

Big Coopie, Snowy and Buffy

It makes me feel very guilty. The whole point of this part of the project was to be able to eat delicious eggs knowing that they have come from chickens whose lives were as fulfilled as possible (broadly defined). Though they had plenty of opportunity to root about in the foliage and so on, the net result is still that four lovely chickens have died. To carry on with this endeavour we will need to make sure the coop itself is even more secure.

Published in: on July 2, 2012 at 1:31 pm  Comments (2)  

An egg!

We’re completely ova-eggcited (double groan, no more egg puns, don’t worry) as today, one of our hens (we suspect the big one) laid our first egg. And here it is:

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Published in: on February 27, 2012 at 5:23 pm  Leave a Comment  

Transforming the Garden

I got to August with the detailed descriptions of transforming the garden and came to a grinding halt. I will write something about the  (in parts) triumphant harvests of September and October soon, but in the meantime, here are the collated pictures of the garden from the time last January when we had lifted the old paving slabs until this winter’s snow. There’s a bit of a lacuna in Autumn but we didn’t really have one – it was pretty green till December, and then it wasn’t! This year’s work will begin soon.

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Published in: on February 15, 2012 at 4:59 pm  Leave a Comment  

Productive Land: August

Still no chickens, and still raining a lot, but we got some lovely food from the garden…

August was cool and wet, which really knocked the wind out of the growing season. We ended up with a lot of leggy plants with limited end product, and a whole load of split tomatoes. Still, it wasn’t all bad news. We had plenty of tomatoes – sweet cherries for salads, larger softer tasting specimens for sauces, and some unsubtle beefsteaks for slicing. The runner beans came through with a vengeance too, giving us a couple of portions perhaps twice a week – about as flavoursome as runner beans get and not too stringy.

Beans by night

Another star performer – perhaps the best so far, actually – was the rocket. Bowls and bowls of wonderful, peppery rocket. There were a few other salad leaves too, but the abiding memory of the August crop will be some feisty little leaves standing up well to parmesan and steak, as a base for a tomato salad, or simply as an addition to a sandwich. The rain meant the salad just kept coming. The leeks and beetroot also enjoyed the wet weather, while the white and red onions seemed to hit a bit of a wall; we did, though, get a few spring onions.

Spring onions

We had to harvest the pumpkin a good month early. The windward side of it had become riddled with soft flesh and mould, and creatures seemed to be burrowing in. To save the rest, I cut it down and sliced off the offending third or so, leaving a couple of nights’ worth of delicious – if somewhat tangy (due to under-ripeness) – roast pumpkin. The key part of the pumpkin story was the slight furore it caused with one of the community groups who use the community centre at the library. I was hanging out the washing and heard “the pumpkin has GONE!” and “they took away the PUMPKIN! I was WATCHING that every day!” I hadn’t realised we’d been entertaining the locals, who would now have to put up with the far less impressive sight of slowly ripening tomatoes…

Pumpkin! Very early pumpkin...

On the chicken front, we felt that the noise and disruption the decking construction and kitchen refit would cause meant a slight delay was for the best. Enough should have been done in the next few days to go and fetch the pair of Speckled Sussexes though!

So here was the garden at the end of August. The chicken coop roof in the bottom left with the woodpile hinting at the upheaval going on out of shot: earthworks for the decking, all sorts of other works for the new kitchen.

Published in: on September 15, 2011 at 8:01 pm  Comments (1)  

Productive Land: July

Apologies for the lateness of this post… events in London and elsewhere got in the way somehow.

July was up and down. After June’s weather disappointments, growth was erratic. There wasn’t much sun, it seems. I was out of the country for a couple of weeks and the garden was in the hands of trusted family members. The carrots and onions/leeks continued their slow growth, as did the beetroot and pumpkin plants. The irrepressible spinach was a constant bounty.

Carrots, Onions, Spinach

The grapes started to ripen, and as they did so we cut away many of the leaves to expose the best bunches. Others were culled. The failed broad bean crop (blackfly having done for most of it) gave us a few tasty delights in its death throes, and with space to breathe in the pots once the plump potatoes had been lifted the runner beans took off and soon reached six feet.

Broad Beans

The ‘English country garden’ section (just a couple of square feet, really – designed to attract bees and other pollinating insects) really exploded into life in early July, with tall hollyhocks, seductive foxgloves and mournful scarlet poppies. Despite the interest of two naughty cats, the insect population really seems to have taken off.

Come hither, bees

The chicken coop was ordered and constructed. We had to add wire on the base of the run to prevent foxes being able to dig underneath. The coop has been positioned in the southwest corner of the garden, under the vine. Most of the day it will be out of direct sun, sheltered from the wind, on a patch of grass for the girls to peck at. Next month there will hopefully be something on the hens themselves; depending on free time I should be off to Salisbury to pick them up.

The garden in late July

Along the back wall, new trellises supported the tomato plants, which really need some polythene as wind protection. As the month closed, we were looking forward to an August of pumpkin, beetroot, runner beans and tomatoes.

Published in: on August 20, 2011 at 8:02 pm  Leave a Comment  

Holiday Reading

Monsters, fascists, slaughterers and liberal parents

I took what seemed a ridiculously ambitious six books away for the two weeks in Fiji. In the end, there was enough hammock, beach and early bed time to necessitate an additional seventh. Above you can see what constituted my holiday reading; hereafter, a few thoughts on those volumes.

First out of the hemp knapsack was John Wyndham‘s The Kraken Wakes (as an aside, the recent Penguin editions of Wyndham’s fiction are rather lovely). I’ve written about my admiration for Wyndham before, here – and some of you may have noticed that this blog is in fact named after one of his first stories.* Wyndham, for me, is a bona fide genius; a follower of H G Wells, certainly (though less of a Huxleyite than often presumed, I would suggest), he is the antecedent of J G Ballard, Allan Moore, Margaret Atwood, P D James – and China Miéville, of whom more shortly. Wyndham’s overarching project was the utterly plausible depiction of disruptions to parochial (even where nominally metropolitan) petit bourgeois daily life caused by exogenous shocks of a non-economic kind, expertly weaving in the Cold War context. Allied with an anachronous penchant for strong woman characters and a devilish eye for social satire, some of which is every bit as biting as Isherwood and even early Waugh, Wyndham’s major works are both time capsules and timeless stone tablets; they contain snapshots of his era but illustrate eternal human processes and interactions. The Kraken Wakes is exemplary in this regard: an alien threat manifests itself and nations are rendered inactive by mistrust and petty jealousies, while human-scale responses are undermined by entirely surmountable fractiousness and attitudinal inertia. Whereas other of his works progress steadily, TKW follows a more episodical path, with separate ‘phases’. This invites the reader to fill in the lacunae, which one may attempt neatly, logically and without colouring over the edges, or abstractly, ranging into the future as darkly or optimistically as a prevailing mood permits.

From dystopian fiction (of a sort) to the dystopian reality of Arundhati Roy‘s Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy. Roy’s retreat from fiction (or rather her preoccupation with factual reportage and advocacy) is well-documented and, in my view, deeply admirable. To be outspoken not only on regional disasters such as the Sri Lankan genocide but also specifically on the Indian tinderboxes of Kashmir and Naxalism (which she weaves together as part of a wider thesis on India’s crassly brutal ‘development model’) is brave beyond belief. Many of the essays contained in Listening to Grasshoppers concern the mishandling of the investigation into the attack on India’s parliament in 2001, though there are also detailed sections on genocide in Gujarat and some explorations of peasant resistance to state-sponsored barbarity in the rural northeast. The flagrant perversion of Indian democracy leads Roy to question the value of such a concept at all. It is an uncomfortable and courageous line of enquiry, and one which we should be brave enough to follow here in the UK too, where the real government so clearly extends to media moguls and police chiefs. The writing is at once characteristically elegant and abrasive: a call to arms without hectoring; clear, unanswered questions without the pretension of easy answers.

Moving back to fiction, I finally got around to one of the ‘buzz books’ (ugh) of the decade, Lionel Shriver‘s We Need to Talk About Kevin. I must say I found this unusually irritating. I thought it was pretentious, mind-numbingly middlebrow and mostly unconvincing. It was far too long to sustain interest, and while I was gripped by the last sixty or so pages – by that stage I wanted the details of the denouement, much of which was guessable early on – the preceding four hundred were annoying in the extreme (and I am too stubborn to abandon a book half read). None of the main three characters was vaguely sympathetic. The mother, and ‘author’ of the letters which make up the book, was a cold, vain, arrogant borderline sociopath; the father a wet, patronising, irresponsible, myopic – and in his own way equally arrogant – dupe. Kevin himself is a sadistic non-entity; I don’t feel that the author herself really ‘knew’ him. A bitch, a bore and a little bastard, to put it crudely. None of the relationships in this triangle (later square) were particularly realistic, or rather there were enough jarring disjunctures to make them seem phony. I am intrigued to see whether the film can breathe some life into them.

Interestingly, as the immigrant of the piece, the mother (of Armenian heritage) embodied much of America’s cold, robust, enterprising side. The father was homely, faux-warm and empty. Kevin was perhaps meant to embody some version of post-modernity. Absurd or surrealist violence as annotated by Baudrillard. The whole thing was depressing but more aesthetically than emotionally, as so little of it rang true at a gut level. The story was all-too plausible of course – the banality of the high-school massacre being one legacy of the last fifteen years – but the characters were constructs or ciphers. The writer seems as cold as her proxy, the mother, and it shows on each page. I would perhaps recommend it as a point of interest for discussion – after all the book has gained some cultural currency – but I’m not sure it’s a healthy intervention into the debate on contemporary child-rearing; more a sad commentary on one person’s interpretation thereof.

I was relieved to be able to tuck into Jonathan Safran Foer‘s Eating Animals – though I shouldn’t have been. I’ve teetered on the edge of some degree of meat rejection for a long while, and this book feels like the permission I needed to move properly to what the author terms ‘selective omnivorism’ – that is, the eating of meat only when its rearing and slaughtering meet ethical minimums (assuming one is comfortable with the ethics of eating meat in the abstract, which I think I still am). The book has so many fascinating and horrifying parts; too many to describe really, I would simply urge all to read it. There is an Emperor’s New Clothes element to it: I’m sure at heart most of us know how degraded and disgraceful the meat industry is, but we are very good at closing our eyes and ears to the facts. Really though, as Safran Foer expertly argues (and from an everyman position – this is not simply about middle-class guilt), the game is up. We are well on the way to creating Atwoodian ChickieNobs. Something has gone horribly wrong with our flesh consumption (not least the ridiculous underpricing of meat – where externalities are ignored and will only be costed later, in future antibiotic uselessness and dangerous genetic monopoly). And fish. Yes, fish is just as bad, if not worse. Even if you think his fiction to be too clever, too arch, too portentous, this is a different kettle of line-caught sustainable tuna.

After the travails of Kevin and the grimness of the meat industry, a book offering a snapshot of a transition to fascism might not seem like light relief, but every moment of Antonio Tabucchi‘s Pereira Maintains was a joy. This was given to me with high recommendation by friends of impeccable literary taste, and the anticipation was ramped up further by (what seemed) a rather gushing introduction by Mohsin Hamid. However, the superlatives were spot on. Rarely have I read a book with such economy of language; an efficient prose which loses no richness in its trimming. In just a couple of hundred double-spaced pages, the dawning of the fascist state in Portugal is unveiled, with excursions into the worlds of the Spanish Civil War, Portuguese literature (and wider culture),  and that great inter-war institution: the health retreat. Oh, the heat! Oh, the lemonade! Oh, the hidden communists! Pereira himself is both a fully-rounded character and a representative of a substantial section the population at large; not only in Portugal, but more broadly in a Europe descending into the grip of various fascisms. The literary device used to frame the entire narrative is risky but successful, leaving an element of doubt as to the story’s (in)conclusion. A wonderful book, and one I am very glad to have encountered.

Next stop: China Miéville‘s Perdido Street Station. At around eight hundred and fifty pages it was a bit of a doorstep – at one point so unwieldy that it ended up in the sea. Its enormous scope and effortless grappling with a myriad of metaphysical concepts belie the precocious author’s then twenty six years of age. The city of New Crobuzon is highly evocative of London, though on an alternative development path lacking digital technology and dependent upon steam-driven machinery (and pseudo-computers). Not precisely analogous to our world due to the existence of many non-human sentient races and something akin to magic, the city nonetheless has areas and communities which feel familiar. Isaac, the main protagonist, could easily be working in the Imperial or University College science labs as conducting his Universal Force Theory experiments in Brock Marsh; were it not for her insectoid head, his partner Lin might be at home exhibiting at the White Cube. Actually, the insectoid head might be fine there too.

The themes – loyalty, community, democracy, censorship, the criminal-state nexus – are universal, and the size of the book allows genuinely thoughtful exploration of each. There are brief moments which induce a wince, but in general the writing is playful, provocative and very smart. In some places it reminds me of a less self-satisfied Iain M Banks; in others, a humbler Will Self. The warts’n’all urbanophilia of Iain Sinclair is also coursing through Miéville’s veins like the rivers Tar and Canker (and, by extension, Thames). Perdido Street Station was compulsive and challenging; in fact, its page-turner nature worked against it somewhat as I occasionally felt as though I hadn’t enough time to process all the ideas. A great read; while I had followed Miéville as an activist and commentator it was my first engagement with his fiction and certainly won’t be my last.

Finally, on the plane home I hoovered up Bolaño‘s Last Evenings on Earth. A rich collection of haunting, wistful and melancholy short stories, often deploying the author’s semi-autobiographical alter-ego Arturo Belano (see also The Savage Detectives). As with other of Bolaño’s triumphs the ebb and flow of the text is captured beautifully in a sympathetic translation. While many of the stories are, prima facie, bathetic wanderings through the minor circles of literary purgatory – was a writer ever as playfully obsessed with the taxonomy and hierarchy of other writers as Bolaño? – there are the usual revelations of life in Spain, Mexico and Chile. As always, the interstices of political and cultural landscapes are the key scenes of Bolañoverse dramas, but it is easy to extrapolate broader human themes from these micro-level tales. Much like the Tabucchi, a wonderful and lasting reward for just a few hours of reading.

So, in sum: Wyndham continued to impress me with prescience and precision, ditto Bolaño with wist and wit; Roy was precisely as promised by a friend, ‘articulate and bracing’; people really need to talk less about Kevin, notwithstanding the fascinating wider subject matter; Safran Foer broke free of portent and pretension to offer something deeply affecting and painstakingly researched (which I realise is what fans think of his other books); Tabucchi dealt an absolute ace; and my first Miéville was entrancing: the course is set for Embassytown.

Two weeks off from the doctoral writing-up and a few months’ worth of pleasure reading caught up on. Now back to work.

The first entry here was a quotation from The Kraken Wakes and encapsulates much of my intellectual reaction (if not my emotional instinct; or is it vice versa?) when confronted with the likely collision of climate change, resource security and energy depletion.

Published in: on July 28, 2011 at 11:27 am  Comments (1)  

Productive Land: June

June was a great disappointment, weather-wise. Wet, and when not wet, overcast. The great spurt of growth which April and May had brought was slowed, and in some cases halted. Nonetheless, potatoes, spinach and peas were abundant and delicious; and the lawn was finally installed.

Bulging clouds over Tottenham

The potatoes have cropped well. By early June we had new potatoes, pictured below, and a couple of weeks later the Charlottes were in. Unfortunately they had crowded out the other occupants of the pseudo-milpa pots – a mistake I won’t make next year – but by the end of the month we had harvested perhaps eight pounds of spuds.

Bowl of spuds

The last of the strawberries were greedily snaffled this month. Overall the crop wasn’t enormous but the plants have spread and hopefully next year will see an abundance. They were genuinely delicious though.

Strawberries, sweet and fresh

The pumpkin plant has got completely out of hand, but the tomatoes and beans make steady progress, as do carrots and artichokes. We have also trimmed the vine, which by the end of June had a huge number of grapes setting in bunches on its branches. It is unclear whether there will be enough summer sun to ripen them. Time will tell.


And finally, at a cost  of a little under one hundred pounds, we bought enough turf to cover around two-thirds of the remaining ground. This provides us with a place to sit and enjoy the garden while absorbing and retaining moisture. The rest of the uncovered ground will be decked in autumn.

The garden in late June - with lawn!

Published in: on July 10, 2011 at 11:13 pm  Leave a Comment  

Productive Land: May

May was a dry, windy month, often overcast, tempting us with drizzle but ultimately drought-ridden and difficult. Nonetheless, it was the month in which our productive land began to offer up food in decent quantities for the first time.

Bee-attracting flowers

The plants we had put in to attract bees delivered a bounty of eye-catching flowers; not the sort you would necessarily find in a florist, but the stuff of bee fantasy. Though the cats continued to menace the bees as they went about their busy work, the netting we had installed to protect the beds gave protection to our pollinators too.

Spinach and potatoes

In the raised beds, the potatoes were leggy and out-of-control. The wind, which the walls usually minimise, was brutal in May. It knocked over many of the potato plants and they recovered only with the aid of bamboo canes. Meanwhile the spinach began to yield decent side-portion sized crops about once a week.

The pseudo-milpa pots, and peas

The milpa pots remain a mixed bag. The corn clearly doesn’t like the competition with all the potato plants, though the runner beans seem largely to be thriving. No crops yet but they have flowered. Blackfly did for the broad bean crop’s early efforts, but we’re hopeful there might be something later in summer.


The peas, though, have been tremendous. They are a variety called Oregon Sugar Snap. Sweet, tender and rapidly replenishing, our four pots seem to be yielding a decent little bowlful each week.


In the forest garden, the rhubarb and strawberries are delivering fruit already. From the former we’ve had a good crumble. Better still, we’ve collected some of the most delicious, sweet strawberries in memory. They are far better than those we can get locally; it’s been very pleasing to be able to pick one as and when the urge takes me. Delicious.

Ms. Squirrel

Finally our friendly local squirrel continues to visit in search of nuts. She’s fairly tame and is clearly nursing a number of baby squirrels somewhere in the pine tree next door.

The garden at the end of May

The next task is to find somewhere to put the tomato plants, which are already 6-8 inches tall, and then to lay the lawn – hopefully next week. And at the end of the month we will hopefully take delivery of the chicken coop, but that’s for another time…

Published in: on June 5, 2011 at 4:47 pm  Leave a Comment  

Productive Land: April

Far from being the cruellest month, April was sun-drenched, causing the plants to grow at breakneck speed…

First of all, the front garden, which has been through three of its planting phases: the primulas have been and gone, as have the daffodils. Now we are enjoying a bumper display of irises. The soil is still a problem, and we’ll need to enlist the help of a lot of worms to dig in the compost, but it’s great having such a wash of a colour as we come and go.

Meanwhile, in the back garden we assembled the sleepers into two raised beds, with the double-chamber compost above and behind the potato bed. In the latter I planted three rows of King Edwards (maincrop), three of Rocket (first earlies) and two of Charlotte (salads), as well as some raspberry canes.

The second bed has carrots, white onions, red onions, spring onions, leeks and spinach. The grapevine, which is rooted below the potato bed, has grown rapidly; if we get a sunny summer it should be a bumper crop. On top of the compost heap I added a layer of a couple of inches of shop-bought compost and planted beetroot and pumpkin. It seemed like a waste of growing space, so I will be intrigued to see if much comes of it.

Apple blossom

In the mini forest garden the trees continued to flourish with the exception of the poor little nectarine. I removed all the leaf curl and will keep an eye on it but I think there will need to be some sort of intervention (Bordeaux mixture) next winter. The rhubarb and strawberries went in and have really taken off; mint, more raspberries, wildflowers (for bees) and nasturtiums are also doing well. In the pots, the peas thrived (with frequent watering), the runner and broad beans shot upward and more potatoes burst up, growing perhaps a foot in two weeks. The only thing that is going slowly is the corn; I think I will have to sacrifice some potatoes in the pseudo-milpa pots to give the corn enough light.

Signs of life: grapevine in early April

So this is where we were up to at the end of April (below) – lots of greenery surrounding a big flat slab of stony soil. Next up will be the construction of a trellis along the back to facilitate tomato growing along the top of the rear wall, plus finishing levelling the ground so we can being laying the lawn…

The garden at the end of April

Published in: on May 10, 2011 at 1:34 pm  Comments (1)  
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