Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Ha-ha, hadeda!

It’s breeding season in hadeda-land which, if it’s in my garden (and it is), is a pretty fraught time.

‘My’ hadeda family – which started about six years ago with a mom and a dad, and has grown every year since - lives in a huge pepper tree quite near the house. They share space with about a gazillion weaver birds and, occasionally, a maurauding gymnogene, which hangs spectacularly upside down and digs its double-jointed limbs into the nests for those delicious little babies. (Ag shame.)

Anyone with a hadeda family in their garden will know them by their screeching calls – a protracted and ear-splitting haa-haa-daa that is bad enough during the day, but at night causes you to wake up with the hairs on the back of your neck bristling. Who knows why these birds are sometimes moved to shriek in the middle of the night – my best bet is that they’re woken by a terrible nightmare because they sound like a tortured soul being dragged down into the pits of hell.

Hadedas are ibises and go under the wonderfully chewy scientific name of Bostrychia hagedash. They’ve only relatively recently – since the late 1960s – colonised the western Cape, and by the 1990s had become breeding residents in these parts. They use their long, curved beaks to probe the ground for earthworms, grubs, insects and even small snakes, so their range expansion probably has something to do with the increase of irrigated areas (making for softish soil), including suburban gardens and agricultural land.

They’re sociable birds, and out of breeding season can gather in quite big flocks (up to about 100). In breeding season – which is usually after the winter rains, from about July – they get together in pairs. They tend to use the same nesting site year after year. For such big birds, they build very flimsy nests, and eggs and chicks often fall out of them.

Both parents incubate the eggs (the female may lay up to six), and they hatch after about a month. Then there’s another couple of months of frantic feeding – again, by both parents – before the babies are ready to fly the nest.

And that, in our garden, is where the fun begins.

Out of breeding season, Mr and Mrs Hadeda and their offspring from previous years tease my dogs unmercifully. They hang out casually in the garden, making a big show of not noticing the dogs stalking them, and then fly off with their shrieking calls at the very last second. It drives the dogs completely dilly – in all the time they’ve been ‘hunting’ them, they haven’t come even close to catching one. (Thankfully.)

But things change when it’s time for the new babies to test their wings. A baby hadeda on the ground has zero chance of survival – they have no way of getting back into the nest, and if the dogs or cats don’t get them, some other predator will. So it’s an incredibly stressful time for Mr and Mrs H – and, in our case, the two babies they spent about four days teaching to fly.

It’s all done with a great deal of wing-flapping (not surprisingly) and even more noise, with the result that everyone in hearing distance is alerted to the goings-on and in a constant state of tension. The dogs are on watchful standby in case of a happy (for them) accident.

This year, it was mission accomplished for our hadedas, and Mr and Mrs H successfully launched two babies. Here’s the one (if you look closely, you can see it’s still got some baby feathers on its chest and head), proudly atop the garden shed, a short but successful flight from its nest.

So next year we can look forward to an even more expanded hadeda family, and even more noise.

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Monday, 29 August 2011

Magnificent mosaic #1

With my new Zen-Karoo garden planted, there wasn’t much left to do but sit back and wait for spring (then summer, then spring and summer again, and perhaps one more spring and summer), for the plants to grow in and the garden to start looking established. But two areas still disturbed me – both were untreated grey cement.

The pool pump, which had always been something of an eyesore (left, before renovations), was hidden and contained by the handy lads from the Riebeek Valley Garden Centre, using breeze blocks (below). The result, although it cut down on the noise and hid the pump components, was still umistakably just a big grey block between two beautiful beds. What to do?

I’ve tried to use only local inspiration, materials and labour in my house project, so I didn’t have to look far for who could transform these – my long-time friend Jill Gordon-Turner, an artist of exceptional imagination and talent, and the genius behind Hungry Heart Mosaics.

From initial discussion to completion of two mosaics took about four months. For the pump-housing mosaic, I asked Jill to work along a Karoo/endemic flower/plant theme, and, in May, we had several discussions about form and colour. Then Jill spent careful time taking measurements – because she works in her studio, these have to be exact so that when the mosaic is transferred, it fits perfectly.

This (left) was an early fitting, in mid July – Jill’s vigilance with the measurements was worth the time and effort, as it was exactly right.

And, last week, finally, after hours and hours and HOURS of intensive and concentrated labour, the mosaic was ready for installation.

Installation itself is a big job – which is why a mosaic artist needs to be multi-skilled, with not only oodles of artistic talent, but also plenty of know-how about the materials she works with, how the weather affects setting, grouting, cleaning and so on. And completed mosaics aren’t light, so a bit of muscle-power is also necessary.

The heavy lifting in this case was supplemented by Gerald, who prepped the wall to take the mosaic (above left), and then helped Jill lift it off the base it had been living on for so long (right). Between the two of them, they positioned it against the wall (above left), and then Gerald did the grouting (below right). This took a good couple of hours, and the job was still far from finished.

Over the next few days, Jill sat (literally in all weathers!) and carefully positioned the metal pieces, cleaned each tile, dug out grout that had covered itsy-bitsy pieces, regrouted sections that had been overlooked, and generally put the finishing touches to her amazing creation.

And here it is! Isn’t it just fantastically beautiful? It has a protea and a disa in it, plus a gasteria (with gorgeous, delicate iridescent detail in the leaves); a Swartland landscape (I love the two little houses in the middle-ground); several interesting flower- and mountain-shaped pieces of metal; a binding rune (in the circle), requested by my son; and ‘in vino veritas’, which was my daughter’s contribution. (This small picture doesn't do it justice - click on it to make it bigger so you can see the detail.)

The line that runs down the left side and along the bottom (also with its surprising little sparkly tiles) continues on the mosaic that Jill is busy installing on the firepit – the second mosaic has a completely different theme, and this line carries the eye between the two, especially when viewed from the verandah.

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Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Thumbs up for Passport Services

A few years ago when I went to the UK, South African passport holders were still welcomed without the botheration of visas. Then the massive corruption that is prevalent in some of our government departments apparently made it necessary for the UK to declare South African passports insufficient proof of honourable intentions (taking us back to the days of the ‘green mamba’, which is what South African passports were called during apartheid, when they couldn’t get you access almost anywhere in the world).

Having gone through the horror-story of trying to get an American visa for my daughter a few years ago (an infuriating process that we finally abandoned), given the choice of trying to get a visa for the UK or never travelling again, I decided I’d just never travel again. But then my dad moved to Holland and I thought it would be nice to go and spend my birthday there with him in October. And that’s when I remembered that South African passport holders require a Shengen visa for travel to EU countries.

Getting a Shengen visa is almost as big a pain in the arse as getting an American one.

Digging around in my ‘important documents’ file (shoebox under my desk), I discovered my old UK passport, now six years out of date. Hmmm, I thought. I went on the Net and discovered that I could get it renewed, for an eye-watering sum, and as long as I presented myself in person to the British High Command or something. Obviously, what I wanted was a new passport that would give me access to all countries in the known universe, which cost nothing, and which I could get without moving from my chair.

We can’t always get what we want, but sometimes we can get a bit of what we want, and in this case it was through the exceptionally efficient and friendly means of the exceptionally straightforwardly named Passport Services. For a not inconsiderable but not actually usurious sum, and some running-around (I did say we can get a bit of what we want), I got my British passport renewed, and now can travel anywhere in the known universe should the spirit move me.

And here’s a thing: I contacted Passport Services at 8am on Monday 3 August and a real human being answered the phone on the second ring. Within literally minutes he had emailed me all the information I required. I took a few days to gather all the bumf, which Passport Services arranged for a courier to collect on Thursday 4 August, so it arrived in Johannesburg (where they’re based) the next day. Another call from a real human being assured me that by Friday lunchtime my documents and application had been submitted. And my new passport was delivered by courier, signed and sealed, yesterday, Monday 22 August. Which means that the entire process, from initial enquiry to passport-in-hand, took only 3 weeks!

There was one almost-glitch, which was interesting: I had my passport photos and application documents endorsed by a local policeman, but was subsequently informed that SAPS ratification of documents and pics is no longer allowed by the UK because of the huge corruption in certain of our government departments. (Gosh, it’s fun being a South African! Even though it’s no longer 1982!) Fortunately, I have aged so little since my original passport photo was taken when I was 30 that my pic 17 years later is still apparently recognisably me. (I find this laughable: my new passport photograph looks nothing like my old one – and, in fact, it looks nothing like the current me either, as I appear to have just been given the standard large dose of hallucinogen that everyone gets before their passport photos are taken, which causes them to look as if they’re doing mental battle with gila monsters.)

Now, here’s the South African equivalent of this story: my sister, who decided to come to Holland too, was unable, for various bureaucratic reasons (none the fault of Passport Services), to renew her expired British passport. So she has no choice but to travel on her South African passport, which means applying for the Shengen visa. Three weeks after she began the process, she’s still trying to get together the ludicrous mountains of documentation required, with no end in sight. I suppose we should just be grateful that her South African passport was current and didn’t need renewing.

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Monday, 22 August 2011

Eating local

The locavore movement (also called, with charming political overtones, ‘food patriotism’) encourages people to eat food that’s been grown and processed not further than about 600 km distant. The aim of the movement is both to save on the eco-costs of transporting foodstuffs long distances and to promote economic, environmental and social sustainability within communities.

If you keep an eye on what fruits and vegetables are ripening when within your area, eating local is easy. Here in the Riebeek Valley, we’re fortunate to have a small Crisp outlet, and a regular Crisp emailer that tells us what’s in season.

I recently was given two unusual local ingredients.

Table Mountain mushrooms

‘Are you mad?’ That was Scrumptious author and foodie Jane-Anne’s comment when I told her I’d made soup from mushrooms harvested on Table Mountain. But I did get the mushrooms from my brother-in-law, Buzz, who, like Jane-Anne, is a kitchen wizard, so I didn’t worry about their safety for eating.

Perhaps I should have. I work for Buzz, and our professional relationship isn’t always plain sailing – in fact, it’s fair to say that we spend much of our time in varying states of near-murderous rage with each other. Last year, when my sister (Buzz’s wife) asked him what he thought of the idea of taking me away for my birthday, he replied, ‘As long as it’s near a high cliff so I can throw her off it.’ (My sister sensibly booked a weekend away in a low-lying valley.)

Anyway, to make the soup, I reconstituted the dried Table Mountain mushrooms and supplemented them with bought button mushrooms. I softened onions and garlic in butter, added the mushrooms (including the liquor from the reconstituted mushrooms) and some homemade chicken stock, let it simmer until it thickened up a bit, added lots of fresh parsley, and served the soup with a swirl of cream. The button mushrooms were nicely chewy, while the Table Mountain mushrooms had an almost sponge-like texture and a very strong flavour. By coincidence, a sous chef from a local eatery was visiting, and he declared the soup delicious. And none of us frothed at the mouth (Jane-Anne’s concern).

Shoulder of springbok

My friend Herman is a hunter, and he shot a springbok last weekend, and gave me the shoulder to cook. Springbok is a challenge to prepare, I discovered, because it has almost zero fat, so it’s got to be done with a very light hand if you don’t want to end up eating hot biltong. I marinated the shoulder in a bottle of red wine, lots of garlic, onions, juniper berries, lemon zest, herbs and various other goodies. Then I seared it and wrapped it in bacon. I cut up onions and celery and put them in a large roasting pot, added the springbok, the marinade and some chicken stock, and oven-roasted it for just under an hour.

Using the strained juices, I made a rich gravy by adding a bar of dark chocolate, a splash of port and about half a jar of quince jelly. We were all hungry by this time so the gravy was a bit thin – it should have reduced a bit more. I served it with lightly steamed whole baby marrows and pan-roasted potatoes.

Dirk did an excellent job of carving. The meat was very tasty but fairly tough – it was still pink near the bone, so this wasn’t a product of overcooking; springbok is just like that.

It’s hard to say whether the springbok or its method of preparation had anything to do with how the evening unfolded. We’d started early because everyone was tired after a long week, so when someone mentioned that they could hear a rooster crowing, I said, ‘Oh, don’t worry, it doesn’t mean anything, they just sometimes do that.’ Then I went and had a look at the clock and discovered it was 4.30am. We’d been playing Very Loud Music for hours, so I had a moment of panic about having kept the neighbours awake – but then I pulled myself together and just fervently hoped that we’d given the three yappy dachshunds over the road a sleepless night, to get them back for the endless hours they wreck the neighbourhood peace.

We stripped the springbok shoulder of its meat, but even the bone didn’t go to waste – here’s Sara, polishing it off. (Thanks, Herman, from all of us.)

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Wednesday, 10 August 2011

When dressing down pays off

I’m not a snappy dresser. I’m not being falsely modest. If I could spend my life in pajamas, I would, but cow-patterned flannelette two-pieces don’t go down well in business meetings with banking/insurance clients (more’s the pity).

Fortunately for me, I live in a part of the world that fashion forgot. For instance, I recently bought a gold bra by mistake (it looked beige in the shop), and Johann immediately pointed out that I could wear it outside my clothes on my next visit to Malmesbury, and fit right in.

So today I was in Malmesbury, trotting around doing chores (among other things, trying to find a red bath mat – not, apparently, available in Malmesbury for love or money, which is a shame, since I’m going through a red phase), and dressed in my usual bag-lady Helena-Bonham-Carter throw-on-the-first-thing-my-hand-touches-in-the-wardrobe style – holey tracksuit pants, a questionable long-sleeved T-shirt and well-worn old takkies.

As I was rushing across a parking lot, a beggar stepped from the shadows. ‘Mêdêm, asseblief, mêdêm,’ he said (Missus, please, missus) – the standard South African precursor to a usually long (and, sadly, often true) story about his house burning down, a grievous bodily injury, dire poverty, and the need to hit me up for as many bucks as my conscience might compel. Just I was making moves to dig about in my bag, the beggar gave me a closer look and said, ‘Ag, nee, moenie worry nie, mêdêm, ek kan sien mêdêm het geen geld.’ (Oh, don’t worry, I can see missus has no money.)

The irony of this is that I was actually on my way to the bank to pick up my Amex gold card.

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The nature of happiness (and whether money can buy it)

I was standing on the mountainside this morning and the sun was rising across the valley. The dogs were scuffling enthusiastically through the vegetation and I could hear the sounds of birds and livestock. Just then, a steam engine pulling a dozen carriages toot-tooted down below, and I watched for about 20 minutes while it traversed the valley, puffing out little belches of smoke and hooting at crossings. I really, really love trains, and I suddenly felt so happy I wanted to cry.

We spend so much of our lives in pursuit of happiness, often without really knowing how to find it or even what it actually is. And, sometimes, we’re so busy searching that we miss the times we really are happy – we don’t stand still for long enough to appreciate the feeling.

Happiness means different things to different people – for instance, a total lack of responsibility can be bliss for one person, while someone else might get real joy out of being in charge of many tasks. Still, happiness is often cited as being connected in some way to good health, fulfilling relationships and an appreciation of our environment – all things that are attainable without being wealthy.

Of course, if happiness, or at least contentment, can be defined by an absence of certain things, such as disease, loneliness, anxiety or hunger, then an absence of poverty must also be an indication of happiness – as my ex-mother-in-law, who made piles of money (and, incidentally, subsequently lost it all), once snapped at someone who accused her of tackiness, ‘I’d rather be nouveau riche than nouveau poor.’ But can money actually buy happiness?

Apparently it can, initially at least: as a colleague says, ‘If I have to be unhappy, I’d rather be crying in a brand-new Land Rover than in my buggered-up old Toyota Corolla.’ But once the new-car smell has worn off, that Land Rover becomes just another car. So what happens is that having pots of money raises your aspirations, and those aspirations then turn against you: once you’ve eaten in the finest restaurants, travelled business class, bought your dream house and gone on a 6-week holiday to the Far East, then takeaways from the Spur, flying steerage, living communally with friends or going away camping for a weekend lose their capacity to bring you joy.

Not only that, but too much money corrupts – as the Bible has it, ‘the love of money is the root of all evil’ (1 Timothy 6:10). In fact, several studies on lottery winners have proven this: many people who win the big bucks ultimately find themselves worse off than they were before they struck gold – bankrupt, in jail, fighting substance abuse or depression, avoiding hitmen, in litigation with family members … none of which can reasonably be said to bring happiness.

Someone suggested that if your money isn’t buying happiness, then you aren’t spending it right, and perhaps that’s the reality. If you suddenly have access to vast funds, to use it to help you achieve happiness, you should spend it on * activities that help you grow as a person (painting lessons, say) * things that strengthen your connections with others (modest trips with friends) * contributions to your community (donations to needy organisations) * activities and experiences rather than material possessions (a family reunion) * several small pleasures (a weekly massage) rather than a few big-ticket items.

And, of course, anyone who’s saved hard and long, and finally gets to buy that car or go on that overseas trip or put down a deposit on that house, knows the satisfaction of achievement – which could be another indicator of happiness.

Some things that make me happy
• Clean bed linen
• The silence when the three dachshunds over the road aren’t yapping incessantly
• Completing a project to brief and on deadline, and knowing I’ve done it well
• Cooking for friends and/or family
• Those breath-taking summer mornings, when it’s already warm by 5am and the world still looks new
• When it’s wet and cold outside in winter, and I’m inside, warmly dressed and with a lovely big fire roaring
• The insane way my dogs greet me when I get home (even when I’ve been out for, like, 10 minutes)
• Goldie’s craziness
• Having my kids home (usually)
• Getting an email from my Dad
• Winning the Lotto (just kidding)

What makes you happy?

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Tuesday, 9 August 2011

This is why I don’t like eating out

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the nice things about growing older is staying in. This makes me a curmudgeonly going-out-to-eat person, because when a well-meaning friend suggests a get-together for dinner at a restaurant, it’s just boring to go through all the reasons I don’t want to go. So instead I say, ‘Sorry, I’m busy that night,’ and when I say it enough, nobody ever invites me anywhere. Which I suppose is a bit sad but does serve the purpose of freeing me from the awfulness of ever eating at a restaurant (with the recent exception of Bar Bar Black Sheep).

But today was National Women’s Day, so I drove through to Stellenbosch to take my daughter out for lunch. Neither of us knows much about Stellenbosch restaurants (me because I don’t live there; she because she lives there on about R10 a day), so we opted for safety and went to the Cape Town Fish Market.

It was full and there was a new manager on duty (I know this because he mentioned it a bit later – I’ll come to that) but we found a nice outside table in a patch of sun. Our waiter, Arno, practically skidded to our side, delivered our menus, and came back lickety-split to take our orders. I began relaxing into what turned out to be an utterly false sense of security.

Starters were chicken spring rolls (definitely bought in, a shame when you consider CTFM has sushi chefs on call, so it wouldn’t be a stretch for them to serve home-made ones) and ‘vegetable’ (um, green and red pepper) tempura with bottled sweet-chilli sauce and not a drop of soya in sight.

Mains were hake and salad for me – the hake looked yummily golden-brown on the outside but proved to be horribly mushy within, and the salad smelled like wet dog but was, paradoxically, as dried-out as a wino’s tongue; and calamari and chips for my daughter – and the nicest thing I can say about that was that it was unmemorable.

Desert was chocolate brownies (I think they were nice but by then I’d had half a bottle of wine and my standards had dropped precipitously) and a chocolate-fudge cake that looked and tasted like the plastic equivalent you might get in a little girl’s Christmas tea set. (Here’s the proof of the pudding: I took the plastic cake home to my son, who will usually eat anything that hasn’t actually been taken out of the dustbin and had the coffee grounds brushed off it, and he had a look and said, ‘No, I don’t think so.’)

And then the fun started.

We’d got there at 1pm and finished our meal around 2.30pm. All that remained was for us to have some coffee and get the bill.

At 2.55pm (by now I was timing it), I went inside for the third time to find our waiter, both to order coffee and to ask him to clear the table of the desert plates. Somebody else came out and picked up the dishes and took our order for coffee (‘and the bill, please’). The coffee arrived, cold, at 3.15pm, but not the bill. I tossed back the coffee, waited another 5 minutes, then went inside again.

While I was asking around for someone who could possibly please please organise our bill (for which we’d by then been waiting for 45 minutes), a woman came storming in from outside. My Afrikaans isn’t great, but the gist of her shouting, frothing and arm-waving was that she’d ordered sushi for 8 people at 2pm and nothing had yet arrived. This beat my problem hands-down, so I stood back and gave her some airtime.

Just then, another customer came out of the women’s loos with an expression of Apocalypse Now-type horror in her eyes. ‘There’s something wrong with those toilets,’ she said, pointing at the door. A passing waiter asked, ‘Which one?’ and she whispered, ‘All of them.’ So that put the kibosh on having a wee to pass the time (and of course just then I realised that I really did need to wee).

I finally found a ‘manager’ (it said so on his name tag) and practically rugby-tackled him and dragged him to the computer. ‘I need our bill,’ I said. Wiping sweat from his brow, he asked me my table number. ‘I don’t know,’ I said (do you memorise your table number when you sit down?). I pointed out the window at where we were sitting, and the manager poked a few buttons and a bill came up that looked like ours (I scanned the screen and saw it had hake, calamari and a bottle of white wine on it). ‘That’s ours!’ I shrieked, over-excitedly, ‘print it out!’ He did, and presented me with a bill that staggered me a bit, but eating out is expensive, and anyway I was now really desperate for the loo, so I threw my card at him and told him to do the necessary.

But while he was fiddling with the card machine, I looked at the bill again and said, ‘Oh, sorry, no, this isn’t ours, it’s got a whole lot of stuff on it we didn’t have.’

This was clearly a nasty curve-ball because the manager let out a groan and I thought I may have to catch him under the armpits to stop him slumping to the floor. ‘I’m new here,’ he gasped, ‘today is my first day.’

‘Where’s our waiter, Arno?’ I asked, because for goodness sake someone had to take charge of the situation, but the manager just looked embarrassed (and faint) – I looked for Arno, he shouted for Arno, and several waiters went searching for Arno, but it appeared that Arno had absconded in the middle of service. We never did see him again.

Another ‘manager’ (it said so in his name tag, too) came over, and we went to a different computer, and between the three of us, we managed to remove the 4 items that weren’t ours, and add the 2 that were but hadn’t appeared on the bill (the cold coffees), and finally I was able to pay. And by then I was in such a state of cross-leggedness that when manager #1 asked, ‘Should I add 10 percent for the tip?’ I just gritted my teeth and nodded – I was afraid the outrage any other response would elicit might cause my bladder to betray me.

And we finally got out of there at close to 4pm.

It’s just as well I was with my daughter, who has a bizarre sense of humour, so the whole afternoon was actually rather funny, but for R320 plus change and almost 3 hours of my life that I’ll never get back, our restaurant experience was exactly what I’ve come to expect from eating out.

Which is why one of the nice things about growing older is staying in.

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Thursday, 4 August 2011

My, how they’ve grown!

Thing One and Thing Two (pictured here as little balls of fluff back when they hatched on Valentine’s Day this year) have grown up into nice strong koekoeks who each lay at least one egg for us every day.

We were going to call them, oh, Jan & Maria or Nelson & Graca, or even Ellen & Portia or Elton & David, once we knew if they were male or female. But time passed and the original names stuck. And anyway, it’s fun to go out in the morning to feed them and call, ‘Come, Things!’

(Interestingly, the Agricultural Research Council’s website tells us that you can tell the gender of koekoeks practically from the moment of hatching, as ‘the females are completely black while the males have a white spot on the head’. As is clear from the chicks’ baby pic, both had a white spot on their head and their chest – and yet both turned out to be female. Hmm. Perhaps they’re not as pure-bred as I like to think.)

As you can see by the sun rising in the background of this picture, they like their breakfast nice and early. That’s their mom, Goldie, in the foreground and the Things behind. The rooster and the Goldie-lookalike (who has white rather than black tail feathers) live on a neighbouring property but have formed a little melded family with Goldie and the Things, and spend most of their time subtly vying for Goldie’s attention. Goldie shamelessly plays them off against each other all the time, so one of them is almost always sulking.

All four females are prolific layers. The Things lay huge brown eggs; Goldie’s doppelganger lays dinky little ones; and Goldie herself churns out at least a couple every day. And it really is extraordinary when you eat a true free-range egg as opposed to battery eggs or even the ‘free-range’ eggs sold in the shops – these chooks produce eggs with a dense, deep-yellow yolk and very little white, and with a flavour that has to be tasted to be believed.

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