This post on my personal blog was posted there because it felt to me more personal than informational. However it does have some practical information on our flock and electric fence and what not … so you may want to check it out.
When it’s available! That seems like an obvious answer but if you have gotten used to super-market mentality then that answer is not so obvious. If you shop in super-markets you can probably get pretty much whatever you want whenever you want it (though prices may fluctuate) … and you are used to it being that way.
Members of Cutia Taranului experience a different reality. Food is delivered when it beomes available. When it comes to vegetables, the boxes in spring are light and fluffy as they contain a lot of salad leaves, the boxes get heavier in summer when tomatoes and peppers appear and even heavier in fall as potatoes and other root vegetables become available. For the most part this cycle is governed by nature and it provides, when it comes to vegetables, a continuous supply of fresh food for 6-8 months (in Romania). We know it isn’t obvious because many (happy!) members were surprised when, last fall, the vegetable-box deliveries ended.
However there are other kinds of cycles in nature that are less continuous and more concentrated. We’ve recently launched a box with lamb-meat. This is a unique box since it is only available once a year.
In Romania (maybe also in other places, I am not a religious scholar so I don’t know) it coincides with the Easter holiday. However, and more importantly, it coincides with a natural flow. This is the time of year when lambs are born. Most local-Romanian sheep-herd owners, who have established herds, do not want to expand (potentially doubling) their herd (they have limited resources available for their herd and need to maintain it accordingly). This is also a time when sheep-milk-based dairy products are revived (sheep milk is available after lambs are born) and if the lambs consume all (or most) of the milk, then very little is left for producing cheeses. So the lambs need to be butchered (or sold!) now.
If you like lamb-meat then this is the time to get it. If you want it available for a longer period of time then you can purchase more, cut it up into servings, freeze it and thaw it as needed. Healthy, grass fed, organic lamb-meat (in the above mentioned box the lambs are slaughtered in the pre-dawn hours and delivered in the morning hours – it doesn’t get any fresher then that) is only available at this time of year. It won’t be available again until next year.
A similar cycle exists with pig-meat. In villages pigs are butchered for the Christmas holiday season. However there are practical reasons for that too. By that time pigs have matured and grown to provide plenty of meat and the cold weather conditions make it easier and safer to deal with fresh meat (which would spoil much faster in hot weather).
Even in our own small homestead where we grow Muscovite-ducks and chickens and we could theoretically butcher fresh meet whenever we want it (and sometimes we do), our freezer is filled in cycles. After the mating season we will cull some mature males (keeping only ones we wish to breed again next year). In early winter we cull the flock so that we don’t have to feed too many animals throughout winter (we keep good mothers and healthy males).
So keep your eyes open for these special boxes. Food is available when nature provides not when you want it. Consume it when it is available and preserve it for when it isn’t.
There’s been an accumulation of animal-related anecdotes that we’ve experienced … though some may seem unimportant or funny I do feel there is a lot to learn from them … so I’ll just put down those I can recollect for us to remember and you to do with as you please 🙂
Chicks and Chickens
We had an egg fertility problem with the chickens. Very few of our eggs hatched. We believe it was because there were 2 cocks for 6 hens. The cocks were constantly running interference preventing each other from mounting the hens … which may have resulted in poor fertilization. We eventually (too late to matter for this season) culled one of the cocks. We had 4 brooders – one of our own hens and 3 lent to us by our neighbors. The first two hatched 3 and 4 chicks which have been living together as a group of 7. The third sat on eggs from our neighbors and had a much better clutch of ~12 chicks. The fourth hatched 4 chicks.
We were actually “fortunate” that not many of our hens became broody because when hens are broody they don’t lay eggs. If you only have 5 or 6 hens and some of them are broody then egg production can drop pretty fast. For us even 2 or 3 eggs a day is way more then we need … but this can be an issue.
During all of this we moved chickens into the electric-netting and mobile shelter setup. Quite a few of the chickens jumped over the net. We clipped most of their flying wings … and most have taken to staying put inside the net. However one stubborn hen is the third broody (our) broody hen that sat on eggs from our neighbors. We have clipped both her wings and still she jumps over the net. Naturally, her chicks followed her as they are still very small and can simply walk through the netting (even though it is netting made especially for chickens).
We moved mother and chicks back into the fence perimeter a couple of times but then gave up on it … it seemed pointless. A few days ago we heard a sudden disturbance – we lost 2 of the roaming chicks to a fox in the orchard behind the house. One chick disappeared and another I found lying dead in the grass.
In addition, in recent days the hen has decided that her mothering role is over – she is no longer calling out to the chicks, she is allowing the cock to mount her and we think she is laying eggs. We have put her back into the fence perimeter and she is staying put. We have also put the chicks into the fence perimeter and they are not staying put – they are all over the place. We can (and have many times) herded them back into the fence … but they quickly go roaming again. We are not fighting it. We send them back whenever we can, we are hoping they will soon grow to be too large to leave … and hope that until then most survive predator attacks.
Ducklings and Ducks
We had 18 muscovite ducklings. We have kept them in a small mobile shelter together with their mother. We move the shelter around to keep them on as much green as possible. We let them graze freely a bit at the beginning of the day (on their way into the shelter) and at the end of the day (on their way back home to the barn) – they stay together and make the journey either way pretty much on their own. During two “end-of-the-day” journeys we lost 5 ducklings (2 the first time and 4 the second). We’ve been keeping a closer watch.
Side story: My grandmother on my father’s side used to make a typical Romanian dish … a kind of gelatinous pie made from boiled chicken feet. It has some chicken meat in it and is much loved in our family. My grandmother on mother’s side was Polish … she didn’t really like cooking but did enjoy having the family over. She was also in a kind of popularity competition with my other grandmother. At some point she too started making the same Romanian dish. However since she didn’t really care for cooking this dish came out a bit more “dangerous” when she made it because it had some pieces of bone in it … you had to eat it carefully. My younger sister was very small and I recall feeling discomfort whenever she ate the “dangerous” version of the dish. She was used to eating it in a care free way because my Romanian grandmother was very pedantic in her cooking … there were no bones. But I would cringe every time she ate the “dangerous” version in the same care-free way.
Ducks, being water fowl, are fairly clumsy walkers (compared to chickens). They are relatively heavy and strong animals and have impressive/massive webbed feet. Mother duck trampled two of her ducklings. One we found stiff-dead with a broken neck, the other we found lying on its side and managed to recuperate. I used to think it was cute the way the little ducklings follow their mother around in a single line. Now I cringe, much like I did for my younger sister, for the ducklings directly behind their mother afraid she will crush them without even blinking. Oh well.
Dogs and Bites
Andreea has mostly healed from her encounter with Rex the latest member in our pack of dogs. During the first days he was tied but now he is free most of the time. He is a great dog. He is very responsive, very energetic and very soft (even when he is bursting with energy). There is still friction between him and Loui … both will soon be castrated and that should help them get along better. For now we have to be attentive to them and let them know that neither one of them is in charge … that we are. Loui is usually the instigator … so he usually gets most of the attention.
When they share a common enemy the dogs are a very cohesive pack. They run out into the field together, attack together and bark together during the night. Rickyhas “grown” but is still a ridiculous excuse for a dog. A few days ago I found a dead fox lying in the grass between the house and the raised beds. I felt (a) sorry for the fox; (b) proud of our dogs; (c) relieved for our flock. The fox has been tossed into the compost pile (as was the dead chick).
Bees and Honey
The first of our hives is very well established. We have added and the bees have populated many frames. When I inspected it a couple of weeks ago there were quite a few frames filled with honey – even though we have had a rough season bee-wise (too much rain in the spring, disappoint acacia tree blooms, too hot in the summer).
A few days ago when I went out to harvest a couple of frames I was surprised to find that the bees had consumed quite a bit of honey. I decided not to take any for now. We’ll check again in a month or so and see what is available. Our priority is to leave the bees all the honey they need for winter so we don’t know if we’ll get any for ourselves this year.
The second hive is also coming along quite well. It is lagging behind the first hive because we made its transition a few after the first hive. There isn’t too much honey production but there is quite a lot of brood and they are making very nice progress building foundation. If necessary we will transfer some of the honey bars from the first hive to the second one to make sure they get through winter OK.
The third hive did not catch on. There are still some bees in it but there isn’t a queen and not much brood left. There was some brood and signs that the bees were trying to raise a queen but it doesn’t look like that worked out well.
Just Plain Funny
A couple of days ago I am standing on the gravel road that leads to Bhudeva and all four dogs are all around me. Suddenly, out of the weeds/grass appears a small creature that looked like a cross between a ferret and a mouse. In it’s mouth was a beautiful green lizard it had probably just caught. It shot into the middle of the road, found itself amongst 4 dogs and a giant (me) and there was a looooong moment of silence. The creature dropped the lizard … still silence. Then everyone snapped … some of the dogs went after the creature, some stayed to examine the lizard. I called out to Andreea to come and see the lizard in the middle of the road … and most of us lived happily ever after 🙂
We have two hens who are mothers to chicks (two more are still brooding, as are two muscovite ducks). For the first few days they moved around freely until we moved them together with their nestboxes into the electric-fence perimeter. We have inspired, educated and entertained watching them and their chicks. Our hens did not go broody so both hens are on loan from our neighbors. Both are mothers to a small number of chicks due to an egg fertility problem we had.
Xena is a relatively thin, dark colored and featherless-necked hen. She is fiercely protective of her 3 chicks.
Tereza is a puffier, tan & white colored, full feathered hen. She is a more soft, rounded mother. In the first few days we chicks sitting on her and later she was the one we saw with just the head of a chick sticking out between her feathers.
Xena was the first to leave the barn with her chicks. She would find a quiet spot and just sit outside with her chicks rather then sitting inside the barn. One time she chose a location that is on a “path” that leads away from the house. The dogs were alerted to something and darted on that path. We saw trouble coming but couldn’t respond fast enough. Indy jumped over them, Loui tried to do the same but he is a smaller dog. It was amazing to see the relatively small bodied Xena attack him and push him away from her chicks and back towards the house. Loui was very confused and we were very proud … both of Xena and her protective instincs and of Loui who submitted to her (we had to train him to not attack or attempt to eat members of our flock).
Xena and Tereza stay fairly close together though Xena gives Tereze trouble. If Tereza ventures too close to Xena, Xena will lash out at her, give her a good bite and then chase her for quite a while … even after Tereza has backed off and tried to open distance between them.
Xena keeps her chicks busy throughout most of the day. Tereza can be found sitting peacefully with her chicks around or under her.
Once, when we closed them for the night, chicks got mixed up … 5 ended up with Tereza and 2 with Xena … all chicks were warmly embraced … yet in the morning one of the chicks with Tereza lept out and joined Xena. Apparently the chicks do know and prefer to be with their mothers 🙂
Both mothers are exceptional at feeding. They constantly scratch and point out food to their chicks who follow and eat diligently. Sometimes we wonder if and what the mothers eat? When we gave them corn they didn’t touch it … they don’t approach anything that is not suitable feed for the chicks (the corn is way too large for the chicks).
The chicks gradually expand their circle of security … that is how far and how long they can be from their mother on their own. Their confidence grows every day.
Both mothers and chicks have already explored the mobile shelter. When it rains they find shelter in it, when it stops they resume their travels. The chicks look healthy and vital, they’ve discovered their wings and we can see them jumping longer distanced in growing arches 🙂
The chicks eat very little feed (we usually make available to them in the morning and in the evening). They get most of what they need directly from the (currently poor) pasture. We have already witnessed both mothers and chicks ignore feed, preferring to explore what the pasture has to offer.
We have some predatorial birds who take an interest in the chicks. Both mothers are extremely protective. They get very loud when a bird is anywhere near them … even if sitting on a high power line). They get very aggressive when a bird makes an attempt at the chicks. However the most impressive behavior we have witnessed has been a collaborative effort. Tereza, the puffy hen, took all the chicks in under her while Xena went on the offense. Each mother went to her forte and the predators didn’t stand a chance.
This morning we left the mothers and chicks closed in their nestboxes because it is a fairly damp and cool morning and we don’t want to risk the chicks catching cold (they are very vulnerable when they are young). We heard Xena and Tereza shuffling around wanting to get out but decided to wait and see how the day evolves. Well, they didn’t want to wait and in what we can only assume was a collaborative effort mananged to topple the front cover that blocks the entry to their adjoining nest-boxes. They are now freely ranging in the moist day. We are confident the chicks will find all the warmth they need with their mothers 🙂
Here in Romania, most chicks (and chickens) are kept in some form of captivity. Even if they have some free ranging space it is usually not very green (usually over grazed for years) and there are too many of them on it. Most require (expensive and labor intensive) feeding all year long. Chicks particulalry, are kept for many weeks in confined and sheltered spaces with their mothers and live entirely off supplied feed. Yet our chickens and chicks, who require very little feed from spring to fall, are healthy and, as others have pointed out, larger then typical chickens. We have been asked numerous times for eggs for other broody hens because “our chickens are larger”. Our explanations that the chickens are larger because off lifestyle rather then genetic have fallen on mostly deaf ears … and … ironically our eggs were not very fertile (due to too many males residing over too few hens).
PLEASE NOTE: This post contains VERY graphic images of three pigs being slaughtered. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be there to take the images nor that I would be able to. In the end I wanted to be there, I was there and I was able to take these images. If you feel you may be disturbed by them now is a good time to stop scrolling this page. You are invited to skip to the end where I have noted some thoughts and reflections on this event.
From the end of November through to Christmas in many village homes in Romania pigs are slaughtered. Pigs are a very popular source of meat here in Romania. It is a somewhat celebratory event as it provides an abundance of meat as the holidays approach and the winter sets in. I don’t eat meat (and I’ve put that to the test here in Romania) but Andreea does crave it occasionally. She prefers red-meat but that’s harder to find and more expensive then the abundantly available pig meat in Romania.
When our neighbor told Andreea that they would be slaughtering their large female pig, Andreea asked if she could purchase 10kg of meat but she was gently refused – there simply wasn’t enough meat. The purchase, feeding, slaughter and butchering of a pig is usually a family effort – so when the meat becomes available it is divided between the people involved in this process. So, though a large pig was butchered (about 160kg) there simply would not have been enough meat. However she did invite Andreea to purchase one of the smaller pigs promising they would also butcher it for her. Andreea took up the offer and we joined in for a day of pig slaughtering. I was invited and welcomed to come with a camera.
We woke up to another beautiful & picturesque frozen morning (I was actually praying that the sun would not come out so I would not lose a woodworking day).
And a short walk down to our neighbors brought us into a warm room where everyone was ready to get to work. On the table you can see two dishes filled with a Romanian pastry called Placinta – large dough dumplings (in this case fried) some filled with cheese and others with a cooked cabbage filling. They were prepared the evening before (we know because we were there to eat them warm as they came out of the frying pa) in a large quantity to feed the group of people who worked throughout the day.
I think they were waiting for us to get to work … knives in hand 🙂
So we headed out back to the get the first pig – the large mother.
You can already tell from the conditions in which the pigs are kept that they don’t get much opportunity to be pigs nor are they familiar with human contact (beyond basic feeding).
The pig didn’t want to come out and was lured to the door with a cob of corn – there they tied a rope around it’s foot.
Still they couldn’t pull her out.
So one of them went in and got her by the tail … and so they managed to get her out.
In case you are wondering, as I was, why the leg, here’s the answer … by pulling the leg out from under her they got her lying on her side.
Which exposes her neck for the slaughter. She struggled and yelled fiercely to no avail.
It took a few gurgling minutes for her to die and was then pulled to the work space for butchering.
And it was then time for one of her siblings (the first of two) to go.
And one was picked out and quickly slaughtered.
… and pulled out to the field
that was starting to get busy.
I took a small pause to again appreciate how beautiful a place we live in.
… and then it was time to torch the pigs … this is both to burn off the hairs and a first act of cleaning/disinfection. Traditionally this was done by placing the pig in a pile of hay and lighting it. Apparently that was a slow process and today everyone is rushing and there is no space for tradition so blow torches connected to home cooking gas cannisters are used. The problems is that the gas is effected by the freezing cold so the canisters need to be heated. At first they torched the canisters themselves (safety is not a big thing here) and later placed them in hot water.
And so begins a very tedious and time consuming process of burning and peeling/scratching:
Pieces of wood are used to support the legs … you gotta get it all … and the fingernails are burned and then pulled off … which is when bone is first exposed.
and a crime scene
Meanwhile the smaller pig was coming along much faster … it was already flipped over and they started rubbing salt into its skin and cleaning it with warm water.
And then it was time to bring in (or take out?) the 3rd pig … this one was selected by Andreea and will henceforth be referred to as “our pig” or “our dead pig” or “our pig meat”.
And the place started looking very busy … though a quiet and pleasant pace of work was maintained.
Meanwhile the 1st small pig was getting its last scraping and washing
… and then more salt rubbed into it (pity it wasn’t alive to enjoy this)
… and finally propped up between two pieces of fire wood … ready for butchering
… and quickly cut open (it was relatively easy because it was still small and not very fatty … see larger pig ahead).
The procedure starts with emptying the chest cavity … so you reach in, tear through lots of ligaments
and there is the heart and lungs still hooked up
Then the bowels are taken out into a large dish
And the unwanted gallbladder is cut away from the much wanted liver
Which left an empty shell of a pig
Which was then cleaved into two halves
Which were carried inside
This is one example where two halves don’t make a whole
And the butchering continues
Once the large pieces are cut away a blanket of fatty tissue and skin is left … this guy did a very nice and elegant butchering job
Here you can see half the pig piled up neatly in the rear and the second half still whole
The other small pig (our pig) was taking a different route (different butcher and a more improvised work space). The head was cut off first and the rest was … well laid back 🙂
And again in a meticulous and what looked to me a professional chunks of meat and organs were efficiently organized
And … here is Andreea salting a fresh sliver of pig skin
… and reliving a childhood memory she’s shared with me numerous times – relishing its fresh taste
On to the main show … the large pig.
… again some final scraping and washing
… propping up
… and cutting open
… a very large liver and gallbladder
… and a huge bowl emptying
… and a kidney cut up. The kidney is used to determine the “market weight” of the pig. The kidney is weighed and its weight is multiplied by 1000 … so a 50gram kidney (like our little pig had) indicates a 50kg pig.
And again, an empty, though very large, shell of meat remained.
It was cracked in half
And again one half at a time carried to a work table
Where the butchering continued
… and fat was peeled
and loads of meat were carried into the house.
including heavy blankets of skin and fat
which were meticulously carved and cleaned
and set aside for processing and preservation.
Most of the meat will end up smoked. Before it is smoked it is salted (which apparently dries it). A large plastic container was filled with layers of meat and salt. The bottom layers were the neatly arranged blankets of skin and fat – this will be left in salt for two months and then smoked – a recipe for Slanina – smoked fat – considered a specialty dish.
On top of that the rest of the meat is piled – including this heavy slab of meat – a complete leg and thigh … deep cuts were filled with salt and it was added to the container
… no meat gets left behind 🙂
This meat will sit for 2 weeks and then be smoked.
And other parts of the meat are processed into various sausages. One kind of sausage is made of the fattier tissues and another is made of the internal organs together with cooked onions and rice. The meat is ground and packed into the intestines. For this the intestines need to be untangled … a meditative task where the tender ligaments keeping it all together are cut away until the intestines can be pulled apart. A gruesome task (if you ask me) and smelly one especially since the intestines are packed with … shit at different levels of digestion.
Then the intestines are filled with water.
… and their contents rinsed out
and … well piled on the ground
… until they are collected and washed and taken back inside.
The internal organs were washed and set aside earlier.
At this point (around 15:00) I left and went back home. The room was getting to be to intense for me … the smell of meat was overwhelming, some was already cooking (chunks of meat frying in melted fat) for a meal. Smoking had accumulated, I was hungry … and I had enough. So no images of the sausages.
Thoughts & Reflections
One Room: It’s easy to miss, especially for people of a western mindset – that everything indoors in these images happened in one room. The house has two rooms but only one is heated so in winter this room is everything – a bedroom, living room, kitchen … everything. One wood-stove is used for both heating and cooking. It houses two women (Maria and her mother) and occasionally on weekends Maria’s two children. At one point this small room (approximately 4 by 4 meters) sheltered 9 people. One of the sofas/beds was covered with plastic sheets on which the meat was piled. The small table (pictured at the top of this post) has seen the meat from many pigs over its life. Under the table, between the two beds, there is now a large plastic container containing a pile of meat that will be enjoyed over almost a year.
Respect: I have greatest respect for Romanian villagers, they are survivors. They are relatively poor and yet they manage to create an abundant (at least food-wise) life.
Hardship: Romanian villagers are set in their ways – and their ways make for a life of hardship. Pigs are typically grown in a confined and inevitable dirty space (permaculture wisdom is that pigs, if given an option, will keep their shelter clean). They are not given space to roam and range, they are not put to work, they do not live long. They are grown over a better part of a year for meat and meat alone. They have to be fed (expensive and tedious). Pigs here have a poor life and a poor death.
Respect: There seems to be very little respect in life or death towards animals – pigs included. There has to be a better and more respectful way to slaughter animals. There also seems to be missing a respect toward the abundance of food that comes from the taking of an animal’s life.
Appreciation: The lack of respect towards the animals also reflects inwards. Romanians do not seem to be able to recognize and appreciate the abundance of food from such an event. They seem to have lost touch with a capacity to enjoy the gifts bestowed on them by nature.
Biology: It was amazing to see the internals of a living being. I had theoretical biological knowledge – but it went to a different level when I saw the diaphragm that separates the chest and abdominal cavities and the internal organs all in their places.
Strength: I didn’t think I could handle being so close to slaughtering and butchering. Two years ago when I visited Romania I could not sit for long at a table that had just a slab of freshly butchered meat. I don’t know what changed … but except for a first few seconds when blood gushed out of the large pig … I was fine.
Life: I noted that biologically, the pig and I have quite a lot in common. Yes, pigs have a very small brain … but most of the biological workings we share (breathing, digestion, elimination, etc.) are autonomous anyway. Mind aside, What is the magical force behind this? What was it that drained from the pigs eyes as blood was draining from its throat. What was it struggling uselessly to hold on to?
Farm Animals: If When we get around to expanding our livestock (currently poultry only) – slaughtering is going to be a challenge. It is an inevitability – it is impossible to sustain animals on a farm without there being some slaughtering. We will need to figure this out.
Our Pig: Andreea now has 20+ kg of meat – most of it frozen in small one-serving bags she can defrost whenever she feels like having some meat. Some of it will be smoked together with Maria’s batch of meat. Our dogs will also enjoy some of the meat.
Holiday: This event took place on December 1st – a National Romanian Holiday.