Italian Update: and the walls came tumbling down!

Our Italian farmhouse came with a barn. It survived the many years without feathery or furry occupants only by the hairs of its chinny-chin chin. It desperately needed emergency surgery and fast! During our last trip we noticed tiles had fallen in on the roof and knew that if we didn’t deal with the situation, it would only get worse and more expensive.  And before we could say “now what” –  Ralph (our Italian contact and frequent advisor) sorted a temporary situation out that is currently giving us enough time to come up with the best use for the space.

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The barn really needed help and fast!

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The reinforcement around foundation begins!

Basically, we have put a cement brace around the building and given it a new fancy roof. We didn’t start off with the brace as a solution but as we were having a cement post put in, the entire corner of the building fell off. When we got the text telling us the news of the wall collapsing there was a lot of reading and then re-reading the words because it didn’t really sink in.

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And then the wall fell down – winner of scariest text so far

“Does that really say – the wall collapsed, need to replace whole front wall”

“Yes”

That sort of communication exchange not only stirs up emotions of heart-fluttering fear but also of determination. It has not been the first time we were faced with making a decision spur of the moment about some aspect of the renovation. We knew the barn was in dire shape and having the front of the building fall off in the end was not entirely a surprise.

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The roof of the barn before

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Steel beam reinforcement for the new roof

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Almost done! What a difference!

We envision using one section as a guest cabin space with loft bedroom and one section as “office” whatever that will come to mean.

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Emergency surgery completed – now the final decisions can be made

At least it will continue standing upright while we decide. It’s been a fun time researching cabins, there are a lot of clever ideas and we are keeping files of things we like and can afford and possibly build ourselves.  I am currently obsessed with things you can make with pallet wood. It is another challenge and look forward to putting our woodworking skills to good use!

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Italian update: Life is a driveway

This summer the house renovations involved large rocks, small rocks, loud machinery, bureaucracy, pissing off the neighbours and dust – lots and lots of dust. A full arc of activity and emotions!

As our time in Italy can only be done in quick snippets during vacations, the big decisions need to be done well in advance. Luckily, we have the advice and wisdom of our indispensable director of operations Ralph Chiodo. We would be lost without him! Ralph has taken us under his wings and made so much of this life changing project happen without tears. Maybe a lot of sweat, dirt, endless hours of discussion and emails – but no tears so far. All hail Ralph!

Our latest adventure involved the upgrading of a driveway and dealing with the crumbling wall attached to it. The wall needed to be pulled down and replaced before the rains of autumn started. The driveway had been neglected for many years when the house was unoccupied and the wall was creating a perilous area next to the kitchen causing drainage issues and safety concerns.

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Wall along the driveway before

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Old wall and driveway view from above

We decided to replace the wall with armour stones (at a few tonnes each) instead of bricks and cement because we love the rustic feel to it and we will eventually plant lavender and other herbs between the boulders, giving us both colour and fragrance.

The first day of activity was incredibly loud. I have never stood beside a back hoe before and when they get all fired up – they make one hell of a racket! No wonder the neighbours gave us evil looks! I think we have decades of apologies coming our way in that regard.

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The wall being pulled down – its all very, very quiet!

By mid-morning, the retaining wall and fig trees were pulled down. It is unfortunate that we had to sacrifice a couple of trees however, we are offsetting the loss by planting more olive and fruit trees this autumn. It is also a relief to know that this rainy season, the wall will no longer heave with water threatening to burst at any moment – straight into our kitchen window! It is finally gone from everything except for the photos on my camera. And we are not the least bit sad about it!

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Wall being pulled down

wall being cleared of remaining trees and dirt

Wall being cleared of remaining trees and dirt

Once the wall came down, then came the gravel and the placement of the boulders. By lunch we were all nicely covered in a layer of dirt that would have made Pigpen of Charlie Brown fame brown with envy! The boulders were arranged with Ralph directing every centimeter. I have to give the back hoe driver credit for his nimble abilities and super sonic hearing over that engine. It was a delicate operation and we all love the final result!

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Good bye wall!

new wall begins

A new wall begins!

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Things take shape!

Not so sure the neighbour agrees with it all. Besides the evils looks there was a complaint to our local municipal government about our driveway. Initially it was a bit scary having a series of officials debating in the shade of our Oleander trees several days running. There were lots of hand gestures and shoulder shrugging and speaking at verbal speeds that broke the sound barrier.  It was such rapid verbal staccato I think I understood only when they stopped long enough to inhale. My sister is much better at “excited” level Italian.  Everything was settled after a series of phone calls on our behalf as well as emails and the relief of us having all the required permits. We now have a friendly relationship with all the official car driving folks. Being Canadian and foreigners it is Ralph-approved wisdom to make sure all the paperwork is on hand and in triplicate just in case. This noisy enterprise will no doubt be the subject of discussion at the Bar Centrale when the topic is the foreign Amazons.

smoothing things out

smoothing things out both literally and metaphorically

Life is a driveway. It’s filled with noise, hand waiving, dirt, giving directions, taking directions, gossip for the neighbours and change whether you like it or not. Personally, we think it is fabulous!

Cheers to a job well done!

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Our new wall and driveway!

view from the top of new driveway

View from the top of the new driveway!

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The re-education of the sisters: Bees

After our Massachusetts cheese safari, Steffanie and I along with Kathryn – our lifelong pal headed out to the rolling hills and chilly springtime lakes of Northern Ontario. To Restoule to be exact. Restoule is located about an hour and half away from North Bay Ontario, which is several hours drive north from Toronto.  Our destination was Board’s Honey Farm for a two day workshop learning beekeeping 101. I will absolutely admit beekeeping seemed a step well outside our comfort zone but we were all very intrigued about bees – especially with the growing alarm regarding their dying off in large numbers!

For our accommodation, we booked ourselves a self-catering cabin at Cedar Grove Camp. It was a really sweet find! Run by a friendly and accommodating young couple and their family, we had arrived fulled prepared even for the blackflies! For those of you who have never experienced blackflies in the spring and early summer, they are barely visible, flesh slicing, ________!(add your favourite swear word here) We suited ourselves up in these bug outfits used by hikers and other crazy people who refuse to give in to the swarms of these menaces. They are loose fitting netting that go over the clothing and while not 100% –  they are quite effective! Oh and you can drink though them as proven below!

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After a great night’s sleep (the crisp air off the lake with a fire was heavenly but made late nights impossible) we headed off to Board’s honey farm for our first day learning the art of the beekeeping.

Stef Board is a master beekeeper who makes it all seem perfectly easy to grasp because of his endless enthusiasm and love of these amazing creatures.When introduced to the yard, we learned Stef’s system – any hive with a stone standing up has a queen, the ones with the stone laying down have no queen and need attention! Simple.

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Within a few minutes in the bee yard Stef handed me a panel of bees when I had not yet put a net on or gloves or anything more protective than sunglasses and lip gloss. With no time to panic, all I could do was just to concentrate on not dropping them. I may be smiling but in my head was a totally, more swear-ridden story!

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It was an amazing experience! It was all very hands on and learning by doing and observing. Some new surprising facts:

  • Most honeybees are considered to be Italian. Beekeeping there goes back millennia and they are much calmer than the African varieties.
  • Bears actually want to eat the bee larva rather than the honey. Which would have made the Winnie the Pooh books very, very different I think!

Throughout the weekend we not only spent time working with bees, we also learned about the health benefits of honey, pollen and the incredible healing power of actual bee stings! Apparently, bee venom is a true life elixir and can be used to treat a variety of ailments.

Another amazing bee fact:

  • Bee pollen is so complete with protein and vitamins you could live on it! Wow!

Together we helped equalise the hives in the bee yard. This is done by introducing new queens to hives without one, and then adding bees to hives with too few. This ensures the bees have enough honey to thrive and enough space for new bees.

In order to accomplish this we learned to use smokers, hive tools and newspaper(!) Newspaper is used when introducing a new queen to the hive. This gives the hive time to adjust to the new queen’s scent as they chew through the paper to find her. Scent is how bees communicate with each other  – including a very distinct alarm scent that will send out the troops! cheese and bees 093

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After our time in the bee yard we then got a few lessons in using wax to make candles. A skill I am really woeful at and Steffanie definitely more of star in that regard.

What an eye opening, challenging weekend! All three of us despite our anxiety of swarms of angry, flying, stinging insects fell in love with these amazing creatures! I would urge all those who read this blog to please read the label on all of your gardening fertilizers and avoid any with neo-nicotinoids. This class of chemical has been banned in Europe and I hope Canada will follow suit.  Neo-nicotinoids destroy not only the brain chemistry in bees making it impossible for them to navigate but also seriously harms birds and other wildlife!

We need the bees as much as the bees need us. Please do your part and look after them where you can and ban neo-nicotinoids!

Long live the bee!

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The re-education of the sisters: Cheese

As part of a gift from our dear mother, we headed off to the wilds of Massachusetts to attend a cheese making seminar given by the Queen of Cheese – Riki Carroll of the New England Cheese Making Company. The three of us embarked on a family road trip and were looking forward to seeing a part of the USA we had never been before and of course learning something new. We were staying in the quite breathtaking Berkshire mountains and as a bonus were greeted by cherry blossoms in bloom.  They were a welcomed sight after arriving from a cold and chilly Toronto.cheese and bees 001

The next morning after a butter-sodden lobster dinner and thick creamy Boston chowder, we headed for another dairy explosion – a full day of cheese! There wasn’t an empty chair in the classroom and the people were from all walks of life. It was reassuring that so many different people are interested in this sort of food adventure.

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During the course of the day each table was responsible for making a wheel of farmhouse cheddar. This sort of cheese isn’t difficult to make (at least with supervision) but it is definitely fiddly and has a list of steps that must be followed. But work shared is work halved and our table was quite pleased with the look of our end results despite not getting to try it. As cheddar must age, we had to suffice with sampling the previous class’s efforts. Riki walked us through each step as well as demonstrations of making several different types of cheese and yoghurt.

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The yoghurt was a revelation to be honest – it has been a long time since I have eaten yoghurt that didn’t have a gelatinous texture to it. Instead, we were treated to creamy deliciousness made right in front of us – in an instant. As I shake my fist to the sky like Scarlett O’ Hara…I swear, I will never buy store yoghurt again!

Riki also showed us how to make queso blanco, ricotta, mozzarella and two types of soft cheese.  It was dairy information overload but with the delicious lunch served with the newly made cheeses, it was inspiration enough to put our new skills to work!

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Many thanks to Riki for an excellent day out and for those looking to venture into the grand world of dairy, I recommend paying a visit to the New England Cheese Company.  Trust me, the next day you will start wondering where to find someone with a cow! Or perhaps a goat…

The New England Cheese Company website:

http://www.cheesemaking.com/

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The re-education of the sisters: This time its BYOC (bring your own chair)!

For her birthday I bought Steffanie a reupholstery course that was highly recommended. (restylestudiotoronto.com)  The course offers beginners a unique space to learn the art and skills of reupholstery.    Along with instruction, the studio provides the necessary materials to get you started. Students bring their own fabric for the final stages and of course you need to bring your own chair! BYOC darlings!

The course covered everything right from how to strip the piece down to the framework, how to put in new springs and finally, how to  add the final  flourishes that make it your own. Having recovered a casual dining set (currently residing in rejuvenated style in la casa di Laura) Steffanie decided to take on a much bigger project.

Enter a 1960’s tub chair that had been calling out for help. The chair had been recovered for a second time in the 1980’s with a shiny, geometric pattern and the fabric quite literately disintegrated into dust. Ah the eighties, design horrors of epic and dusty proportions! I think it was ambitious to take on such a large chair however, Steffanie is a brave one and attacked it like a pack of wolves.

Although the course was one weekend long, the chair proved to be a larger task. A couple of extra studio days were needed but the end result is quite impressive – Well done sister! To add to the mystery, Steffanie kept the final fabric and design a secret until the big reveal. No amount of wealsely or sly questions could get any sort of meaningful detail out of her. When the last touches were completed we had a bit of a party in the chair’s honour and Steffanie got to show off her masterpiece in style.

Steffanie brought the chair into the modern day and she also gained new passions for air compressors and staple guns!  Next step will be my sofa and I get to be the apprentice. That should prove entertaining at the very least.ImageImage

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on with the new!

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Letting the sunshine in! We proudly present our first before and after shots!

The renovation of our house has been the source of many hours of discussion and debate between the two of us. Where exactly do we start? We had witnessed home renovation chaos via our friend’s projects here in Canada as well as watching a seemingly endless stream of real estate shows (all in the name of research of course haha). With the further complication of not actually living in the country, we both knew that baby steps and lots of planning would be the best and only way forward for us.

With a limited budget, we sat down with a list and created a timeline of what would be best done now, then soon, then later. If Steffanie could be described as having a super power it would be the Master of Lists and List-making. Thankfully, we have different strengths in different areas and my marginal input in list creating is balanced out in other pursuits. Otherwise, it would be me staring at an excel spreadsheet yelling at the screen in a variety of exotic swear words for hours on end.

With so much to do, it was hard to focus but with our crafty spreadsheets, it was easy to make the first major decision – to upgrade the windows. The old windows were single-paned, no screens and some of them were missing glass entirely.  As a result, the drafts were enough to force us to wear mittens at the table when we were there at Christmas time!  And in the spring … all manner of irritating, stinging bugs nibbled on us while we slept.  Since marinating in calamine lotion isn’t how we envision our vacations, we decided that windows would make a big difference in a variety of ways.

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Steffanie on the balcony with the old windows and doors

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The balcony with new windows and shutters! Ta Daaaaaah!

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Balcony without new shutters

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The balcony with new shutters!

In addition, we also decided to pay the extra money to add two new windows in the bedrooms. Apparently, this caused a lot of additional discussion with the contractor as to why we needed more windows in our bedrooms since we were only there at night (says you).  After making it quite clear we were determined and much to the irritation of our neighbours, new window holes and no doubt lots of noise were created.

Laura's bedroom

Once where only reptiles roamed….

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Behold! A new window and light!

Another less controversial window was also made in what is now our living room. Previously, the room had two French style doors and a window in between. With such an amazing vista, we decided to create a third door and expand the view of the castle. And why not!  Being able to look across at a castle was part of the reason we fell in love with the place and we both want  see as much of the landscape as possible no matter where we are sitting and at any time of day.

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The window on the left becomes ….

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A door!

Of course there were a few delays but in the end, as with most things in Italy, it got done – just not with our city-girl Canadian sense of time.  Italian timing is best calculated with a glass of wine (or several) in hand and lots and lots of patience. Like an opera there are stages and acts involved: Anticipation, Anxiety, Stress, Negotiating , Re-negotiating, Appreciation and then Relief  – in the end, a few extra weeks of waiting versus the many future years of light and beautiful scenery makes it worth the wait.

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Castle of Cleto, Calabria

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The re-education of the sisters continue: Getting our farmer “wings”


It had occurred to us that there was a fairly large, fairly obvious question yet to be answered. How exactly were we going to transform ourselves from city caterpillars to country butterflies? What if we hated it? What if the sound of a rooster at 4:30 am caused such a fury that it resulted in its untimely death by shovel? How were we to gain valuable farm experience when our family migrated to the city with our grandparents? Let’s face it, farming skills just don’t come up in general conversation in downtown Toronto. Except perhaps, when it relates to the time-waster Farmville.



Where to begin? We were at the crossroads. Sure we had invested some time and financial resources but we had yet to prove to ourselves that we could actually shovel poo and kill our supper. We know this is a crazy idea and despite never growing crops other than a backyard garden, never dealing with animals other than the family dog, never living in a rural setting beyond the suburbs of a large city, somehow our decision has been the right one. And thanks to a newspaper article, those questions have answers and we got our country wings.


Several months ago, the Toronto Star published a story about an experience on a goat farm in Devon, UK. The reporter went to the farm and learned about feeding, milking of goats and making goat cheese. In return for her labour, she got her room and board. Sounded perfect. We went to the site workaway.com and signed up. It was quite amazing to see the number of countries involved and the number of opportunities. We sent out several requests and to be honest, got a number of rejections.  It was a little ego bruising to get a few curt “not interested” responses however having spent time on dating websites, online rejection has a short shelf life.  And like online dating, you learn fairly quickly where compatibility might be found.

We concentrated our efforts in Ireland. Our escape plan being if we hated it at least we could have a holiday and a bit of craic as they say. One farm stood out. It was a mother-daughter combo in county Mayo. The west coast of Ireland is spectacular and we crossed our fingers for an acceptance email. When we got one, we were really pleased and relieved.

Our flights were booked and our departure date arrived. It was a little daunting heading to a stranger’s home and wondering what might be expected of us…and no less so for the hosts.  However, Mary and her daughter Anna turned out to be the perfect example of the perfect hosts. After driving from Dublin we were welcomed with warming cups of tea and conversation. We had told them about our Italian olive farm and how we wanted to learn about farm life. Its a bit hard to bring up “I want to learn how to kill and clean a chicken” without sounding like a satanic psychopath, which is why I love the Irish so much. They have a bit of mind-reading ability and after a few sips of tea, Mary in her charming accent suggested “now would you girls like to kill a chicken”… we knew we were at the right place. Mary was a natural teacher and her love of farming life was contagious and heart warming.

Our new alarm clock

Their farm has a menagerie of animals including turkeys, chickens, guinea fowl, pigs, goats and horses and four lively and loveable dogs. Our first night we had an excellent meal and were told we would be feeding the animals the next morning. The farm moved at the pace of the sun. Early morning (later than we actually arrive at the office back in the city) we would gather in the kitchen for a quick supportive coffee or tea and toast if we liked. Then we were off to feed the animals. This took about an hour and afterwards we would have our proper breakfast. Wow! two breakfasts! Then after our second proper breakfast we were off to do more physical work at either cleaning out stalls or wood chipping or weeding.

Breakfast is served!

Walking from the stables accompanied by Bella one of the four lovely dogs

There was another pair of sisters staying at the farm as luck would have it.  They were a lovely pair of twins from Dresden who were far more experienced and at least twenty years younger, doing their gap year working on various farms and visiting various countries. With the extra hands, we could rotate our chores and we wouldn’t have to do any one thing too long. Mary made it quite clear we were not to strain ourselves and to say if we were too scared or too tired to tackle something. However, Anna was a cheerful director of operations and never once did we think we were asked of something beyond us.

Another lively second breakfast…introducing Germans to maple syrup was almost a mystical experience hahaha

 

There really isn’t much to shoveling shit. And despite the sound of it, it really didn’t smell, dare I say it…all that shitty.  We were expecting a full nasal assault but actually it wasn’t that bad. I have smelt worse things on the streets in July than what was confronting me in the pig stall. We were to clean out the stall as the previous occupants were off to market the next day. We had never seen a live pig up close. Sure we have visited the “farm” exhibit at the CNE (Canadian National Exhibition) but the animals were generally behind thick glass – for their protection as well as ours. When we heard their morning squeals on the farm it was a serious ear bender. When they say pigs like their food, they really, really mean it. The pig stall was also a hell of a lot cleaner than I expected. Pigs eat in one place, sleep in another and never shit in their bedding. The stall floor was covered in saw dust and straw which compacted during their residency but the fun stuff was concentrated in two corners. We both have a new found respect for pigs. At dinner that night Mary and Anna invited us to accompany them to the abattoir the next day. They always accompany their animals to make sure they get a quick and respectful send off. I know that sounds a bit harsh but bacon and ham come from somewhere and we just spent the afternoon shoveling evidence of their origins.

Steffanie vs poo

Laura vs poo


The next day we went with Mary and Anna to the abattoir. Neither of us knew what to expect. For us, bacon came in packages and here we were at the start rather than the butcher’s counter. We were first in an expanding line of local farmers bringing their pigs “to market”. Before the animals took their final walk, they are labelled with something called a slapper. This proved to be a valuable lesson. A slapper is like a tattoo. It has sharp inked needles that make animals traceable to the farm. Each farmer has  a unique number and must be accompanied with matching paperwork before anything can happen. Despite the violent description of the slapper, when Anna “slapped” the farm’s pigs they didn’t even flinch and merrily went on munching their breakfast. As we were waiting in line one of the other more burly of the farmers decided to slap his pigs in a low-sided, open trailer. This was a disaster waiting to happen. Pigs aren’t stupid and the force of the slapping lead to escaped pigs and general chaos for more than an hour. It took ten men running around waiving and generally looking like a clown act before the brilliance of producing a bucket of feed reared its head. Lesson learned. Slapping a pig so hard to prove before our very eyes that if you can’t be a good example, be a warning. Duly noted.

Runaway pigs!



After our highly amusing trip to market and now fairly proficient skills with a pitch fork it was time to put our selves through another more daunting task… time to see if we could actually do the deed ourselves. Mary’s philosophy of animal raising is that animals need to be respected and never to have a harsh moment and deserve a quick and efficient journey to the table. Her method of getting a chicken “oven ready” so to speak was indeed quick and relatively bloodless. Chickens have a design flaw in the sense they have an extremely weak neck and they can be detached in seconds with the aid of a broom handle. I didn’t realise I had done my first act of butchery and neither did Steffanie, there was no dramatic sound or feeling of detachment of the head and Mary had to say “they are gone” for us to realise it was over. Literally seconds. Yes, there was flapping but it was not the actions of a living animal. Wow! We both did it! No tears, no running around carrying on(us not the chicken).  To be honest it was so quick, we didn’t have time to flinch if we even felt the need to.  That morning we woke city girls and went to bed farm girls.

My eyes say it all…

Dinner!

Plucking the chicken went very quickly once Mary showed us the method. It happens as the bird is still warm and removing the feathers is easiest at this point. And our new grim fact: chickens eat the ends of freshly plucked feathers. That actually was more gross to witness than killing it. Once we had plucked the chicken we took our birds to a cold room to drain and cool down before we cleaned and prepped the bird for cooking. This was the final step. Sure we could do the deed but could we clean it the following morning without hysterics? Its a lot less messy when the internal organs are cool. For the sake of my more sensitive friends we were very successful and without the gory details- we took to it like water off a duck’s back… yeah, yeah bad joke but its hard to be amusing when you have your hand up a cold chicken’s ass.

Butchery becomes her



In our week on the farm, we shoveled a mountain of shit, fed animals that previously were only known to us in clean, clear, boneless packages in the store to killing and cleaning them. If we deserve to get our farming wings, it must be for that at least. The entire week was a brilliant and lively affair. The other pair of sisters, Pammi and Franci, were excellent company and we were so glad to meet another set of like minded sisters. 

It was a trans-formative vacation. No swim-up bar, no sleazy wait staff with ready made seduction lines, no thumping dance music, no feelings of insecurity in a bathing suit and no hang overs…it was rubber boots, a waterproof shell suit, no make up and no pressure. We left changed people and have memories of a life time and made great friends.  If that doesn’t describe the perfect holiday – let me know.

It was hard to leave!

Oh and the rooster survived. Doesn’t mean we didn’t think about it once or twice.

Back in our city camouflage – a fine day in Galway!

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