I’m intrigued by stories of people who are determined to follow their dreams. Robin Neilson, for instance, grew up in the comfortable but non-descript suburbs of north Burlington. She went to George Brown College where she earned her chef’s papers and worked in many kitchens. (The most recent, a six year stint as a dessert and line cook at the Burlington Golf and Country Club.) She is an extraordinarily hard worker. But, in her own words, the most unusual thing about her is “I have always just loved chickens.”
Robin now lives in a modest, but charming farmhouse north of Dundas Street, set off from the busy highway by a long gravel driveway and a screen of trees. She and her husband bought the farm four years ago because they wanted to work on the land and get back to nature. And boy, did they work.
The house, she says, was derelict; no siding, broken windows. It had been inhabited by transient druggies who had decorated the walls with magic marker and many, many foul-tempered raccoons who lived in the upper storey.
“I worked 50 hours a week,” she recalls, “putting in a lawn, making a garden, installing windows. I did all of the baseboards in the house myself with my dad. I got a tractor to make a garden, tearing up the soil to grow vegetables. And then, I remembered that I my aim had been to spend more time with my kids. So I said, “Good day!” to my cooking job and am concentrating on getting this going right now.”
The house has been beautifully renovated with wide windows letting in lots of light, gleaming hardwood floors, prints on the walls and, yes, the baseboards do look great. But Neilson’s real pride is the wire-walled chicken pen in the backyard. Inside the pen (“My husband is planning to build a better coop …”) are 28 hens that Neilson calls “the girls.” She introduced me to the girls and I learned an awful lot of chicken lore:
For instance: Did you know that egg laying hens are different from hens that you use for meat? Robin has many different varieties of egg layers — Columbian Rock X, New Hamp X, Red X, Rhode Island Red and Leghorn. (Chickens have funny names!) She shows me the eggs that she had just gathered that morning and I noticed that they had icky black specks on them.
“Oh, yeah, ” she laughs, “they’re still kind of poopy. The first thing that I found out was that no one wants the eggs until they have been very carefully washed.”
And, did you know, that roosters are not necessary, for chickens to lay eggs. I was astonished by this fact (sorry, I’m a city girl).
Robin says, “Oh, they just lay eggs every day by themselves. I decided that I didn’t want to have a rooster in here because the rooster gets very territorial and protective and makes it difficult for anyone to come in and pet the chickens or take the eggs. Besides, I didn’t want to wake up at dawn every morning to his crowing.”
The chickens themselves develop their own personalities and form a hierarchical social structure in the coop. The brown ones are “nice little pets”. According to Robin they are very reliable, laying an egg every day. “The whites ones,” she says, “are more finicky and flighty.”
Chickens love to eat bananas and watermelon in addition to their feed. (At one point, Robin left me alone with the creatures while she went to get a banana. They all rushed over to me, chuffing and clucking and churring, gazing at me expectantly with their bright little eyes, obviously wondering why this silly person wasn’t offering them anything.)
That Robin has a real affinity for the birds is very apparent. Worried that they might get cold when they were moulting, she started knitting little sweaters for them. (The girls were not interested in fashion, however, and kept ripping the overcoats off.)
The chickens live for about four years but do not lay eggs for that long. Robin did one “kill” a few years ago and decided that she would never do another.
“It was terrible,” she says, “and there was really no point. These chickens are different than meat birds, they just get stringy and boney when they get old. I decided that I’d just keep them as pets.”
She is not really worried about selling the eggs since she has more customers than she has product at the moment. She has investigated getting a market stall (“so many rules and regulations”) and is thinking about an “honour system” stand at the end of her driveway. She may get some ducks too, in the future (“Wouldn’t it be great to put in a little duck pond?”) The farm will be getting a name (R and R Farms) and market gardening is the plan. Currently, she has a greenhouse with 50 plum tomato plants growing in it.
“I’m hoping,” she says, “to be able to sell my products at someplace like The Mustard Seed Co-op.”
I’ll be watching her career with interest.
And here’s a recipe that makes use of fresh eggs for one of my favorite simple suppers.
Asparagus and Goat Cheese Omelettes
adapted from the Canadian Living website
4 tsp (18 mL) butter
1 bunch (1 lb) asparagus
1 tbsp (15 mL) extra-virgin olive oil
3 green onions, sliced
1 tbsp (15 mL) chopped fresh tarragon
4 oz (113g) goat cheese crumbled
1) Snap off woody ends of asparagus. In large skillet, heat oil over medium heat; cook asparagus and green onions, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 3 minutes.
2) Stir in tarragon, cook for 1 minute, transfer to bowl.
3) In a separate bowl, whisk together eggs, salt, pepper and 2 tbsp (25 mL) water until just blended but not frothy.
4) In 8 inch non-stick skillet melt 1 tsp of the butter over medium heat. Add one quarter of the egg mixture, cook until almost set, gently lifting edge with spatula to allow uncooked eggs to flow underneath, about 3 minutes.
5) Place one quarter of the vegetable mixture on half of the omelette, sprinkle with one quarter of the cheese. Fold in half, cook for 1 minute. Slide onto plate. Repeat with remaining ingredients.
Makes four omelettes.