July 8th, 2010

Café au Lay

My new hens have outgrown their garret of a starter coop, and have begun to crowd the outside pen like a Parisian café. That’s café, not CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feed Operation), although conditions are rather similar, minus the threat of a looming hereafter. I hear them squawking over food and drink, or the best sidewalk table.

They’ll soon be moving to a new arrondissement in the orchard, where I’ve built a rather ornate gothic revival villa for them, in keeping with the rest of the property. The naming has begun even before the roof is on: The Café Au Lay. Coop de Ville. Das Coop. Why chickens bring out the cheap wordplay in us is a mystery. We just can’t stop ‘till we get an oeuf.

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The New Coop will house 25 Maran and Ameraucana hens in great style.
While I was compound mitering the pagoda roof on the coop, my children and friends were in the orchard below, harvesting black currants. Their little hands, pulp-stained to a deep purple, picked the fruit in delicate clusters and arranged them in one pint boxes. This year is our first full harvest, with last year’s having been diminished by the ceaseless rain.

Black currants are certainly an acquired taste. Eating them fresh supposes a longing for complex tartness. The first bite through their supple, sun-blackened flesh is almost sweet, while the finish is much darker. All of life’s complexity in one bite. The Europeans have used them for centuries to flavor jams, tarts and juices, and the French transform them beautifully into cassis.

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Daughter Daisy and best friend Hannah harvest black currant. Who needs a Brueghel painting when a canvas comes to life before your eyes?

But beyond flavor, black currants contain the fruit phylum’s highest levels of disease fighting anti-oxidants, particularly anthocyanins, which rage against heart disease, Alzheimer’s, cancer and diabetes. They’re also highest in vitamin C. For almost a century, production in the United States was banned due to concern over white pine blister rust, a fungal pariah carried by currants. But since 2003, all bans are off. I lift my glass of locally grown cassis to that.

Blackberries, raspberries and Aronia (another super-berry) will follow. The orchard view from the nearly-completed coop roof is lovely, full of promise; the fruit swelling in the heat, the bees traveling to and from, like the bowing of a thousand cellos, the chickens chattering in the distance. Life looks good from up here. -Mb

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Black currants harvested in the orchard. Their smoky tartness and free-radical fighting brawn are legendary.

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