The Milkweed Diaries

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Duck Tales

Why ducks? Why these ducks? Read on, gardeners, slug haters, and egg lovers...

I'm finally getting around to posting a little something about our newest farm residents: 14 laying ducks.

We've been looking for a local source for heritage breed laying ducks for a long time, and finally found a breeder about an hour west of here who had exactly the breeds we were looking for: Khaki Campbells and Silver Appleyards. At some point I wouldn't mind adding a few Welsh Harlequins to the flock if we can find them nearby.

We have been wanting to add ducks into the mix at our place for a couple of reasons - first, they are excellent hunters of slugs and snails, and do far less damage in the garden than chickens. As you would guess, looking at their webbed feet and round bills compared to the pointy beaks and claw-like feet of chickens, they waddle and scoop instead of pecking and scratching. And the breeds that were historically kept for eggs are excellent layers, with some breeds actually out-laying chickens. Converting slugs to eggs: could it get any better?

Campbells and Appleyards are both excellent layers and active foragers, and both on the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy watch list as historic breeds at risk of extinction. The ALBC is an amazing resource if you're interested in rare and historic breeds.

If you're new to the concept of heritage breeds, consider this: heritage breeds are to animals as heirlooms are to vegetables. Just as heirloom vegetables and fruits are more suited to home gardens and small farms than plant varieties bred for modern industrial agrobusiness, heritage breeds are much better suited to small, home-scale livestock operations than the modern breeds that have been bred for factory farms and large-scale production.

The ALBC explains: "These breeds are threatened because agriculture has changed. Modern food production now favors the use of a few highly specialized breeds selected for maximum output in a controlled environment. Many traditional livestock breeds have lost popularity and are threatened with extinction. These traditional breeds are an essential part of the American agricultural inheritance. Not only do they evoke our past, they are also an important resource for our future."

Of all duck breeds, Campbells are the most famous for their prolific egg production, laying an average of about 300 eggs per year. The most productive Campbells have been known to lay in the neighborhood of 340 days a year, which is pretty darn impressive.

Silver Appleyards are less prolific layers, averaging somewhere in the neighborhood of 250 eggs per year, and were bred as a dual purpose (meat and egg) duck. They are among the most critically endangered breeds, with the ALBC's 2000 census of domestic waterfowl in North America finding only 128 breeding Appleyards on the continent. I love the Appleyards because they're gorgeous and bold, a nice contrast to the subtle, smart, and curious Campbells.

Maybelline and Bill Murray with a Campbell cohort

I impulsively added another pair to the flock just because of their gorgeous appearance: Maybelline and Bill Murray are a pair of Welsh Harlequin x Rouen crosses, and lovely to look at. She's a superb layer and they have big personalities that are great to have around - Bill Murray is definitely the elder statesman of the flock.

I love heritage breeds for the same reason I love heirloom vegetables - they exist because of a long, careful chain of stewardship over many generations, and they were selected and valued for their usefulness to people producing food at a small home-scale level. Just like heirloom vegetables, they represent the care and nurturing of countless people down through the ages who have given their time and energy to preserving and improving their genetics. Just like heirloom vegetables, they hold within their living bodies a vital genetic heritage. And as heritage breeds become extinct, genetic diversity is lost forever.

Keeping heritage breeds is important in the same way as growing heirloom vegetables. Again from ALBC: "The need for livestock conservation is urgent. Throughout agricultural history, each generation has taken its turn as steward of the genetic trust. Our generation is now in danger of bankrupting this trust and leaving little for the future. Each day, some breeds move closer to extinction. Each extinction reduces the diversity within the livestock species and the biodiversity of the Earth."

Also, it's just fun. I love sitting down at the duck yard in the morning with my cup of tea and watching the flock waddle, forage, quack, splash, and flap. That's some good down home entertainment, right there - on par with pitching our lawn chairs out by the goat barn and watching the goats play. Who needs TV?

Click over to Picasa for the rest of the photos:
Heritage Ducks at Red Wing Farm

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Experiments in Cheesemaking

Since Foxy has come into her milk and baby Felix has gone to his new home at Double G Ranch, we've had lots of goat milk to spare and I've been experimenting with simple cheeses.

The simplest goat cheese, which you can make without any special ingredients or equipment, is made by heating the milk to 180 degrees and adding something acidic (such as apple cider vinegar or lemon juice), allowing the curds and whey to separate, and then draining the whey (liquid) off of the curds (solids) in a fine mesh strainer or a colander lined with cheesecloth.

Then you can hang the cheesecloth up to drain for as long as you want - the longer it drains, the drier the cheese. This is the standard "farm cheese" that Christopher used to make with the milk from his goats fifteen years ago in Tennessee, and I learned the recipe from him. I love the tangy taste and crumbly, dense texture of this simple cheese.

The only disadvantage I find with this simple cheese is that it yields a relatively small amount of final product, with a large quantity of whey left over after the cheese is made. So for a gallon of milk, you might end up with something like a cup and a half of cheese. Plus, I love variety, and wanted to try some other fresh cheeses.

So I saved up to order from the New England Cheesemaking Supply Company and on Thursday my "box of bacteria" arrived via UPS.

Mail ordering cheese cultures is a bridge strategy - eventually, I'd like to make my own mother cultures which I can keep on hand for cheesemaking, but I'm a novice and readymade, pre-packaged cheese cultures allow me to try out different methods and recipes and learn the ropes without a tremendous amount of trial and tribulation. "Direct set" cultures are particularly appealing as relative shortcuts to homemade cheese.

The first cheese I tried with storebought cultures was a plain chevre. There are tons of approaches to making chevre (here are a couple from Fias Co Farm) but this time I used Ricki Carroll's basic chevre recipe.

I started with a gallon of fresh goat milk and ended up with enough cheese that I reserved several cups to use as plain chevre and made a 12-ounce batch of experimental fruit and nut cheese with the dried fruit and nuts that I happened to have around the kitchen.

The plain, unadulterated chevre is super-delicious - very different from the "vinegar cheese" that we had been making. It has the smooth, creamy, buttery texture that is typical of chevre and a very mild, neutral taste. With a tiny sprinkling of salt or just alone, it is divine.

The little experimental flavored batch turned out to be kind of over the top, too good to be true. Here's how to make it:

Fig, Apricot, Walnut, and Almond Chevre

You will need:

  1. Heat the milk to 86 degrees. Add the starter culture and stir.
  2. Cover ant let sit at room temperature (not below 72 degrees) for 12 hours.
  3. Line a colander with butter muslin (a fine-weave cheesecloth). Gently ladle the curds into the colander. Tie the corners of the muslin into a knot and hang the bat over the sink or a pot to drain for 6-12 hours until the cheese reaches your desired consistency.
  4. Set aside as much cheese as you like at this point to use as plain chevre. Fill a 12-16 ounce container with the cheese that will become fruit and nut flavored.
  5. Drain the soaked nuts and chop them in the food processor with the dried fruit. This will make a dry, crumbly paste of figs, apricots, and nuts.
  6. Mix the fruit and nuts into the cheese and viola! Fancy, gourmet-style cheese that would cost you ten or twelve bucks at the farmers market or posh grocery store cheese department,
I didn't weigh or measure the cheese before I dove in, but Ricki Carroll says this recipe makes 1.5 pounds, and that seems about right. The total yield was much greater using cultures than making my farm/vinegar cheese with the same volume of milk, and the milk was barely heated at all, making this a raw milk cheese.

Making cheese from fresh milk is one of the most ancient food preservation methods. In the days before electricity and UPS, cheese was either aged in environments where the desired microbial life already existed (such as a certain cave that would produce a particularly flavorful cheese), even before people understood the microbiology behind the process, or "mother cultures" were kept alive to inoculate each new batch. Fresh, unpasteurized milk has a relatively short shelf life without refrigeration, not so with cheese.

Fresh (as opposed to aged) cheeses tend to be soft and mild, like chevre. Cheeses requiring aging are typically harder in both senses of the word. It turns out that fresh cheese is a pretty simple kitchen project - certainly easier and less involved (and less sweaty) than canning, for instance. My first forays into cheesemaking have been satisfying, easy, and, dear reader, tune in later for further adventures in cheese. Maybe I will even get around to aging some cheese -- but for now we are eating the fresh cheese so fast that it's hard to imagine mustering that kind of patience.