Winter is an interesting season on the farm. It gets cold down here in the South. Not frigid like Siberia, or Alaska of course, but chilly by New Zealand standards. The grass doesn’t grow much in winter and feeding out takes up a big part of the farmer’s day. Of course, it wasn’t always as easy as it is today.
Our son, Chris, arrived home from university three years ago. Parking on the front lawn, he produced out of the battered depths of his rusty Toyota two bags and a big box. One overflowing with dirty washing, another filled with hardly-used books and, finally, 10 tiny ducklings — closely followed by their disgruntled mother and a couple of large, surprisingly mellow, drakes (males). Yes, you read that right, our son brought home some Muscovy ducks.
“These were on the duck pond outside my house,” he casually explained. “The owners didn’t want them anymore. I kinda like them, so I brought them home.”
The big question in my mind, however, was “Who’s going to feed them?”
It was obviously a rhetorical question, you can guess who fed the ducks. And their offspring. And the next generation too. Because now the ducks have made themselves well and truly at home.
Muscovy Ducks On The Farm
Muscovies are fascinating birds. They may look alike but their personalities are quite different. Some are shy, others pushy: always arriving first to the grain bucket. Some stick close to the pond while others range far and wide over the paddocks. One duck is a loner and likes to potter up the gravel road far from home.
In Spring and Autumn, the ducks and drakes pair off and begin to prepare their nests. These could be found anywhere: under a bush… in the rushes… between two hay bales… But the one place you’ll never find them is up in a tree. Muscovies are big, heavy birds. They can fly but tend to stay low to the ground. They would never dream of doing anything as precarious as nesting in a tree.
One peculiarity of Muscovies — and this is truly bizarre — the ducklings cannot get wet!
Say what? Hey back up — these are water birds that can’t get wet?
Yes, strange as it may seem, if Muscovy ducklings get their backs wet and cold in the first few weeks of life it can be fatal. However, neither ducks nor ducklings are aware of this fact and they scramble to dive into water whenever they see it. I’ve been known to administer life-saving first aid in the form of a warm hairdryer and a towel by the fire when, despite all our care, three ducklings managed to fall into a small bucket of water last spring.
Caring For The Ducklings
So we keep the mothers and babies in sturdy hutches for the first month or two. After that, they are free to enjoy the pond on fine days, but we still shut them in at night or when the weather is rough. The cages protect them from more than the weather. There are plenty of stoats, wild cats and even hawks around, all looking to snaffle a tasty treat.
Twice a day we head up the paddock to feed the ducklings. I take the early shift as part of my morning walk. The Farmer takes the evening shift. That’s when all the ducks congregate. When they hear the little Polaris chugging towards the pond, they rush in from far and wide to gobble the scattered grain.
Too Many Ducks
Muscovy meat is tender and sweet, and the eggs are huge and tasty. Both are considered delicacies amongst the duck-connoisseurs in our community. But these birds are our pets, and although we eat the eggs, somehow we just can’t bring ourselves to eat the ducks. However, they are prolific breeders and we can’t keep too many of them because the pond won’t stay healthy and clean if it’s overpopulated.
So the first time the population rose above 40 I put an ad in the local paper. “Muscovy ducks for sale.” I couldn’t believe how fast they sold. We haven’t had to advertise again. Those same customers now phone up every season:
“Are the ducks for sale yet?”
And when the answer is yes, they can’t get here fast enough. I don’t ask what they do with their ducks. I don’t want to know.
2018 is a bumper year for mushrooms on the farm. Every morning for a fortnight or more there have been fairy circles in every paddock.
It doesn’t happen every year. Last year — and the two before that — mushrooms were a scarce commodity in Garston. The weather was too cold … too dry … too something else.
But not this year. A hot, dry January followed by cool mornings and rain in February equals perfect mushroom conditions.
There’s no telling where they’ll spring up. The ground gives no hint. In the evening the paddock looks as it always does; nothing but green grass as far as the eye can see. Next morning it’s dotted with white caps.
Field mushrooms are not like the fungi you buy in the supermarket. Those have been raised on mushroom farms, packaged and cooled. They are firm and last for days in the fridge.
These mushrooms are far too delicate for that. We pick them fresh, the same morning they appear. By evening they’ll be drying out. Tomorrow will be too late.
Storing Field Mushrooms
There’s no point in trying to keep these mushrooms in the fridge for long. A day or two is the most you can hope for.
Our forebears dried them, but I like to cook the mushrooms in butter and wine then freeze them in cute little pottles. Then it’s easy to slip their tasty goodness into winter soups and casseroles.
In the Kitchen
But the best way to eat mushrooms is straight from the paddock. We love mushroom omelettes and mushroom sauce with a juicy steak. Yum!
But my favourite meal is mushroom risotto.
And over the years I’ve managed to perfect a slightly unconventional method for cooking a crowd-pleasing risotto.
I don’t claim to be a chef but honestly, I can’t follow a recipe to save my life. I’m far more likely to check out the basics and tweak the rest depending on the ingredients I have on hand.
And just to complicate matters, “deconstructed” is my go-to style.
When you’re raising four children, each of whom dislikes a different commonly-used ingredient, the only thing to do is give lots of choices.
Between them, my kids hated onions, cooked tomatoes, pineapples and mushrooms. As a result, I tend to cook things separately and let people help themselves to whatever they like best.
So here’s the risotto I made today, with mushrooms and love.
PLEASE NOTE: Some wild mushrooms are very poisonous. You should never pick or eat mushrooms unless you have positively identified them as edible.
Lyn’s Not-Quite-Traditional Mushroom Risotto
1 cup uncooked arborio rice
2-3 cups chopped mushrooms
2-3 cups chicken stock
½ – 1 cup white wine
2 onions, finely chopped
1-2 tsp crushed garlic
1-2 courgettes, chopped
4 rashers bacon, chopped
Garlic salt to taste Pepper to taste
2-3 tbsp olive oil + butter
1-2 handfuls of grated parmesan or tasty cheddar cheese. The parmesan has more bite; the tasty adds to the creamy texture.
The 3 Secrets To Creating A Great Risotto
Use the correct rice: Arborio is the best.
Add the liquid hot, and in small amounts, allowing the rice to absorb each cupful before adding the next.
Taste and use your own judgement as to the exact amount of liquid needed. The heat of the cooking surface and the exact amount of rice you used will determine how long to cook and how much liquid is needed. This particular batch took 25 minutes to cook.
What to do:
Step #1: Prepare your onions.
Melt the oil and butter in a large, deep pan. Add the onions and garlic and cook gently until they are soft and tender.
Step #2: While that’s cooking, chop mushrooms, measure rice and heat the first ½ cup of stock and wine combined.
Stir the rice into the cooked onion until each grain is coated in oil/butter and is well heated through.
Add the hot stock and stir gently. Cover and simmer.
Step #3: Begin to fry the mushrooms quickly in a separate pan.
Field mushrooms can leak far more water than supermarket ones, so it is difficult to prevent them from stewing. I tip out the liquid periodically. Set aside in a separate bowl when cooked.
Step #4: While the rice is simmering and the mushrooms frying, heat the second half cup of water+wine. Chop the bacon and courgette.
Continue to add half cups of hot liquid until the rice tastes cooked to you. Don’t let it dry out: risotto is quite a creamy dish. The rice should be soft but not gluggy. Add pepper and salt to taste.
Step #5: When the rice is nearly ready, fry the chopped courgette and bacon in the same pan you used for the mushrooms.
Reheat the mushrooms if necessary.
At the last minute, stir grated cheese through the rice.
Ladle spoonfuls of rice into 3 or 4 bowls. Top with the courgette and bacon mixture and, of course, the mushrooms.
To download a PDF of this recipe, click the link below.
Our beautiful old boy had died after 21 years and he couldn’t be replaced.
Then along came Miaow, a cat like no other.
We found her one cold winter’s night, sneaking into the pantry to snack on the farm dogs’ biscuits. She’d been “sizing up the joint” for days before hunger drove her in.
She was perilously shy. One whiff of human scent and she fled.
But slowly, cautiously, back she came. Food, warmth, a place to sleep eventually enticed her to stay.
Over the years we’ve come to an arrangement, she and I.
I feed her every biscuits in the morning and cat food each night. Once in a blue moon she will graciously allow a pat. I can tell she’d love more, but she just can’t bring herself to accept them.
From Wild Cat to Farm Cat
Miaow patrols the territory she’s claimed as hers. There’s no sign of a mouse in the pantry during winter, when she curls up on the box of stored farm papers she’s appropriated as her bed.
The hayshed is home over the summer months. Hidden in the hay, she keeps a close eye on the ducks nesting between the bales. She may be the bane of sparrows and mice, but I’ve never seen her pounce on a duckling. Early on, the ducks and Miaow declared a truce. Muscovies are big: the drakes easily outweigh and outnumber one little cat. Discretion is the better part of valour in Miaow’s pragmatic eyes when it comes to ducks and farm dogs.
Feed Me Now!
There’s no ignoring Miaow when she wants breakfast or tea. A piercing call leaves me in no doubt that food is required. And not just any food: oh no, a nice cheap can of Chef or Whiskers would never do. It’s got to be Fancy Feast, please, or maybe the expensive Dine Desire. It’s not worth my while to feed her anything else; the sounds of her displeasure can go on for hours.
All in all Miaow’s got me wrapped around her little claw. She is possibly the world’s most unrewarding cat. And yet, I’m pleased that she trusts us enough to stay.