Monday, September 27, 2010

Back to Brewing Season

For me, beer and cider making is a seasonal affair. This is because, like many renters, our apartment does not include a cold cellar. It is important to keep temperatures during fermentation between 15 and 23 degrees celsius, if it is hotter than this your brew will ferment to fast and produce funky flavours, cooler and it wont ferment at all. In our poorly airconditioned apartment temperatures often jump up to over to over 30 degrees throughout the summer. As hard as it is to accept that temperatures are dropping it is equally exciting to start taking on new projects as the seasons change.

Last week I was lucky enough to lead an apple pick for Not Far From The Tree in the Vaughn and Arlington area. In a beautiful backyard bordering Cedervale Ravine grew two gorgeous apple trees. Nobody was quite sure what type of apples they were, but the best guess was Red Delicious. The apples were of all different sizes and bumpy and gnarly, not exactly the eating apples, but perfect for baking, sauce and most importantly cider. From these two trees we gleaned close to 200 pounds of fruit. Volunteering to take the windfall, and with the owners of the house not wanting their share, I walked away with a full bushel of apples.

From my cider brewing experience last year I learned that it takes a lot of apples to get a cup of juice. In order to have enough apples Dave and I ventured to the Toronto Food Terminal at 6 am to buy some inexpensive number 2's, the name for low grade apples. I've never seen such an interesting scene at 6 in the morning in all my life. There was a huge amount of energy, with chefs and grocers abound, prices were being haggled, fork lifts were zooming every which way, and even beers were being drank. The entire bushel, about 40 pounds, was only 15 dollars.

For last years attempt at cider I used a juicer. I found that this made to clear a liquid and didn't leave behind any of those intensely appley flavours that cider has. For this year I decided to get a proper fruit press. So when my Grandma asked me what I would like for a graduation gift, I think she was pretty surprised by the answer. The press worked fantastically. First the apples were pureed into a pulp in a food processor and then dumped into the press with a cheese cloth lining around it. The puree was then pressed producing a surprising amount of juice and leaving behind a completely dry and crumbly disc of apple. After an entire day of pressing apples (thank you Shira for giving up your whole day to help) we produced enough cider to fill a 25 liter carboy. This is enough cider to fill just over 30 champagne size bottles with delicious bubbly hard apple cider which, depending on my patience, will be ready to drink in about 8 months.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Getting "It"

Do you ever feel like sometimes, things just click in your mind, and you begin to get the proverbial "it"?

Malcolm Gladwell talks about the '10,000 hour rule'.  Now, I haven't actually read Gladwell.  If his TED talks speak to anything, it's that reading one of his books might feel like 10,000 hours.  Yet, the concept that after so many hours, one might really begin to understand and develop expertise in a particular field, intrigues me.

Not that I would claim expertise on the subject of meat curing.  Nonetheless, every time I follow a charcuterie project to completion, I feel like I have a much better grasp on the subject.

Take this newest one.  I decided to do my own take on a tuscan salami - "finocchiona".  Toasted fennel seeds, black pepper and juniper provide the spice hit.  I added red wine for colour, fruit, and acid.  Lastly, I hand diced back fat from a Tamworth/Berkshire cross bred hog.

Charcuterie is on of those funny things where you don't know if you made the right choices until weeks down the road.  This time, I feel like it was a real success.  It hasn't been 10,000 hours, and I'm by no means an expert - but little by little, I'm chipping away.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Chicken Maintenance

Last week I was lucky enough to befriend a fellow urban chicken raiser. Unfortunately, our reason for meeting was that she was in the middle having her chickens extradited to a rural farm by Toronto bylaw officers. I volunteer in City Councilllor Joe Mihevc's office. Joe is a supporter of legalizing backyard hens in downtown Toronto, and so his office regularly receives calls when people get into trouble with chicken laws. She, and her neighbour's, had happily lived with five laying hens for several years. She had lots of tips to give me on strategies for raising hens, but primarily our conversation was about chicken laws. Her concerns were not only that the law should be changed to allow people to raise hens, but that policy needs to be put in place to ensure that people raise their hens humanely and with an understanding of the amount of work that hen raising requires.

Raising hens is not like raising rabbits or gerbils. Chickens require a lot of upkeep, disease prevention, and protection from the cold and predators. The area that I have had the most difficulty with is disease prevention. I think this is because laws restrict a contraband chicken keeper from taking their hens to a professional veterinarian for assistance. This leads to a lot of internet research and guessing. Luckily I've only encountered a couple of health problems in the ladies.

One of these common problems was our Spotted Sussex becoming egg bound, or eggs-tipated as I like to say. This is when a chicken gets one of her eggs lodged in her Ovduct preventing other eggs from being made and causing the hen discomfort. I noticed something was wrong with her as she wasn't laying any eggs and was lying on her side and panting a lot. I started to do some internet research which, as any hypochondriac knows, can lead one to believe that thousands of diseases apply since so many diseases have similar symptoms. After being convinced that Samantha had the Bird Flu, Marek's Disease, and failed kidneys I realized that the most likely ailment was for her to be eggbound. Further research led me to find the cure, a nice warm bath and massage, which I found more appealing to an alternative cure which was to shove a pencil up the birds vent to dislodge the stuck egg. She really enjoyed the bath, and the following morning produced an egg, and was in much higher spirits.

Another common problem has been the appearance of lice on the birds feathers. At first I thought this was a big problem and it left me worried and itchy. But after some reading I realized that this is very common, and that chicken lice won't transfer to people. Living in downtown Toronto without a drivers license means its very difficult to get to a farm supply store and purchase a delouser. This forces one to get creative. I've used a natural insecticide for removing ant hills in the past called Diatomaceous Earth. DE is ground up fossils of diatoms, a type of algea, which dehydrates insects by absorbing lipids from their exoskeleton and thus killing them. To apply this I put the DE into a pantyhose and powdered the chickens, being careful not to allow the chickens, or myself, to breath it in as its bad for the lungs. From researching DE I learned that its good for removing parasites and worms from and animals and so I've now put a mix of 5% DE into the ladies feed.

With winter fast approaching, I am sure that new difficulties will transpire in raising hens and that the daily chores of cleaning out droppings from the roost will become more tedious. But I am very excited to take advice from my fellow chicken raiser and feed the ladies nice warm steel cut oatmeal with milk on cold mornings, and since this is one of my favourite winter breakfasts, I'll enjoy it with them.