house of happy

Life adventures in prose and verse. Explorations of places, people and words. Stories and fun.

Sunday, 28 February 2010

Last Warning

When we bought four chickens last August, it wasn't for their charm, company or meat. It was for the soon-to-appear-eggs. Seven months later we have four mini-raptors that eat non stop, follow us like abandoned dogs and dig up every inch of garden (if and when allowed). Oh and no eggs.

Volunteers and family have endlessly occupied themselves building huts and enclosures for the chickens, moving them about and keeping them fed and comfortable. There are two large yellow bowls in the kitchen continuously collecting scraps of food for them. Leftover rice, bread, wilted lettuce, spinach stalks, stale biscuits – all find their way to our four plump ladies of the coop.

A thankless job. Moona assures me they're on a par with puppies for cuteness, and their ploughing abilities are without equal. But where are the eggs?

In my kinder moments I picture the highlights of their lives: eating through the strawberry patch; chasing the handsome rooster away (read 'Galo Desaparecido' for a full account); seeing the yellow bowl make its daily appearance; following the nice man around the garden, in case he's hiding another yellow bowl inside his hat.

In my nastier moods I count the eggless months and take down recipes for stuffing and gravy. I go to the market and look longingly at egg-laying hens on sale (the brown ones, we now know). I call Moona on the mobile and issue an ultimatum.

He buys a mato frango. It's a contraption made of shiny metal, looks like a large funnel and is used locally to dispatch chickens to their dinner table destinies. Head down, they're supposed to go into a trance. A swift pull at the neck, job done. Pass the bird to the wife for plucking and cooking.

Sounds easy and I feel the boys are quite curious to try it. We step around it for a couple of days, consumed by conflicting thoughts. The mato frango is a testing presence, this much we can confirm. Having the power of life and death over other creatures – however annoying – is acceptable in theory, unconfortable in reality.

Humans have always done this stuff and we illustrate it with our own occasional chicken dinners, our first hand tales of chicken assasination. My grandparents' grilled chicken Sundays in Romania, the slaughter of the Glenternie cockerels by the four Wolfe Murray brothers in Scotland.

It's also part of our future, the self-sufficient life we're pursuing. Inevitable part of the chickens' lives too. They're plump and not exactly earning their stay and they'll taste good. The first one is the hardest, we agree, and go into long discussions about selecting the first victim. Then, although the mato frango is here, there's talk about the best way 'to do it'. Would an axe be better? Moona asks for detailed descriptions of my grandfathers' methods, Nikita wants to know if the chickens ran around the yard headless and, if so, for how long.

The execution date is set for Friday, 27 February. Moona takes the mato frango to the land, I steel myself for the plucking.

The children go with Moona, walk into the coop and find an egg.

Epilogue: We had rice and beans for dinner. There was no way to tell who was the author of the lone egg, and I'm sure that's how the four suspects want it to stay...

Thursday, 25 February 2010


It's been four months, four months of rain, rain, rain. It went from welcome to quaint, to boring, to annoying, and now to fully spectacular and scary. Is this the grand finale, I ask myself, all hope. In answer the wind howls and snaps trees, sends roof tiles into short awkward flights, drives rain up trouser legs and inside collars, plays on... The air buzzes and crackles and whirls in a demented whistle.

It's funny while I write, but now I've got to get up and go to work. I'd much rather make the fire and write on. Black clouds are being chased across the sky, blinds are rattling. I finish my coffee and cram books into my bag. I run to the car, toes-curled-inside-boots, wet after five steps and frozen for the rest of the afternoon. Great.

I remember the monsoon rains in the Maldives, also having to get out of the house and run to work as the sky dissolved with dreadful abandon. The streets in Male, knee-deep in warm, flowing water, like walking insinde the veins of a stirring giant. The moment, early on in every trip, when umbrellas became leaky, useless toys, flapping and folding like broken herons.

There comes a point in any storm when I abandon any attempt to keep dry. Once I let go, there's this small frisson of exhilaration, like shrugging to myself, "how mad is this?..." and "why not?", and loving it. Free and drenched, I would slow down and absorb the deluge, walking from home to jetty, from jetty to office, along the streets of Male, under the warm, all-encompassing shower. Then, back inside, I would invariably sit at my desk, dripping for hours, drying slowly in the frozen breath of the air conditioner.

That was the Indian Ocean, the warm monsoon, but this? I search for something good to say about this relentless Lusitan storm, this wet and angry winter that just doesn't let go. I drive inside a wall of water. It batters the windows and the roads start looking like brown, frothing waterfalls. Finally it comes to me, a good thing to say about all this: we won't be seeing any forest fires in the hills today.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Bread is Back

Two weeks ago (as a rule,when blogging I'm at least two weeks behind) we went to a bread-making workshop in rural Galicia, not far from Vigo. The day was tentatively sunny and bursting with an assortment of expectations. I was looking forward to bread-making tips and infallible recipes. Moona, it turns out, expected a good walk. The kids foresaw only endless boredom.

Surprising, pleasantly so, how many people turned up. Beyond the hippy and the eternally hopeful, people who appeared to come from jarringly incompatible backgrounds and lifestyles lined up to see dough rise. They filed into Cesar's small living room in their woollen socks to listen, laugh, mix flour, knead, chat and wait.

Even more surprising, how much science lurks behind simple bread making. In his gentle, unprepossessing way, Cesar talked for hours, with evident passion, about bread. His speech was a mixture of advanced chemistry (enzymes, formulae, optimum temperatures) and applied biorhythm principles (lunar wheat planting and harvesting, living water). All the while, his hands were busy making dough for bread, biscuits, pizza and tagliatelle in a vast wooden vat chiselled out of a tree trunk.

What were we doing during all this?

I paid close attention to the lesson, notebook in hand. After about an hour, the page was still white and I started making notes about a short story. I love to make bread, always have, since the day (back in 1992) when Alistair showed me how on the sweltering terrace of his Dominican home. Alistair's method: flour in a bowl, add a pinch of this, a handful of that, a few drops of oil/milk/whatever, some warm water. Knead for 10 minutes, then sit down to read the newspaper while it 'does its magic'. Simple. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. You bake the bread regardless, give it different names if you must (say, 'granary bloom' versus 'unleavened', or 'OK toasted').

Look. You'll never catch me counting enzymes. If there's good bread in this house when you arrive for lunch, it'll be a result of tossing the right amount of everything in a bowl with enough living water (I DO like that idea) and sun to complete the magic.

Nikita paid close attention to Cesar's wooden vat. After five hours of intense boredom he went home and immediately started hand-chiselling his own. It's now ready (unlike this blog) and looks amazing.

Kira paid close attention to a plastic roller coaster for Barbie. She played happily with it for hours, only stopped briefly for lunch. She probably didn't notice all the dough and discussion, and still has no idea why we were there.

Moona didn't step into the house. He had a cold, so he said he had a cold and went for a vigorous walk in the forest.

In conclusion, and despite all the above, we all love bread (some of us more than they should..) More importantly, Bread is Back. With the slowly growing realisation that sliced, factory bread is about as good as eating mud, there is renewed interest in having a different type of bread, even if it means making it yourself. From here, you can go the enzyme-counting way, the milligram-counting way, or the 'throw-everything-in-and-see-what-happens' way.

If you still don't know how, ask your granny or anyone's granny before it's too late. Go for it.