Saturday, March 29, 2014

Huevos de Patio

If you like eggs, there's nothing else quite like them. They are called huevos de patio, or "back-yard eggs," here in Yucatán.

That means that these eggs come from hens kept in the back patio of a house. Of course quality varies depending upon how the chickens are fed and cared for, but usually it means that these are what a friend of mine used to call "happy chicken eggs."

The hens producing these eggs don't spend their lives in tiny cages under artificial lights, being pumped full of chemical-laden industrial feed and hormones. Instead, they run around outdoors, squabble amongst themselves, take dust baths, scratch for bugs, worms, tender green herbs and sprouts, and probably mate frequently with a rooster. In the world of chickens they lead social, fulfilled lives.

Last Sunday, as I occasionally do, I visited with friends in Abalá, a pueblo less than an hour's drive from Mérida. Often when I am in the pueblo we take a walk, visiting one of the local cenotes, birdwatching, searching for orchids and unusual wildflowers, or perhaps walking the paths out to the ranch and looking at the family's twenty-or-so head of cattle. However on this visit, by the time we got to the pueblo the weather was already pretty hot, so we spent the remainder of the day staying in the shade and not moving too much.

The result was that we had plenty of time to hang out with the chickens. We prepared the daily feeding that supplements what the birds find foraging in the yard and made sure they had fresh, cool water. A bit later we shooed the birds into the coop so that the hens could lay in clean, dry grass where the eggs would be easy to gather later on.

There are about a dozen laying hens here, and three roosters. Although they mostly look alike to me, I have discovered that their keepers know each animal individually. I now know which hens are the best layers, and that one, although fully grown now, has never laid an egg. She may be headed on a one-way trip to the kitchen one of these days. The same holds for a confused rooster who jealously fights to keep the other males away from the hens, but never mates with them himself.

I learned about the old great-great-grandmother white hen who continues to lay as prolifically as a youngster although at the age of five or six she ought to be far past her prime. There were some jokes that the secret of her youthfulness has to do with "getting plenty" of attention from a much younger rooster. She is prized for her large eggs and is a favorite, more like a pet, in this family.

Although they may know their stock pretty well, country people who raise their own food normally don't get too sentimental about animals. Chickens around here rarely die of old age. Although the old white hen may be an exception, most of these birds eventually end up in dishes like the rich mole we ate Sunday afternoon. The killing is not something anyone in the family likes to do, but it is necessary if they are occasionally going to eat meat. And culling older and less-productive animals makes room for the younger generations.

But the best reason in my book for having chickens in the patio is for the eggs. These huevos de patio are organic and fresh daily. Eating these eggs, we know exactly what we are consuming. Sunday evening after getting home from Abalá I ate an omelet made from eggs that I had gathered, still warm from the hens' bodies, that very afternoon. It doesn't get much better than that.

You may be wondering why there are no photos of the chickens. The reason is that until I got home with the eggs pictured above and ate that omelet, I wasn't planning to write a post about this. But the omelet was that good. I'll try to write again about the backyard chickens, and include photos, in a future post.

Text and images copyright 2014 by Marc Olson

Friday, March 21, 2014

New House: Little, Tiny Steps

For many years the only residents of my new house were a few neighborhood cats, who left abundant evidence of their tenancy in the form of stinky corners and sooty footprints under the ledges of broken windows they climbed through as they came and went.

Seeing these markings, I thought of the line about "little cat feet" in Carl Sandberg's poem "Fog."

I can't really come up with an apt use of the literary reference here except to say that the start up of this renovation project is creeping along as carefully and gingerly as a feral cat in an abandoned house.

There are reasons for the delay.

First, I've learned that taking time to plan a project like this is important. When I bought my first home in Mérida in 2003, I had all sorts of great ideas about what I wanted to do with it. I then inhabited the house, "as-is," for three years without doing any kind of work beyond some cleaning, painting and minor repairs. When eventually I finished the renovation effort I noticed that ninety-nine percent of my initial ideas had been thrown out the window. The time spent living in the house before making changes had allowed me to work out how I would actually use the space. That made all the difference in the quality of the results.

So although this time I won't actually move in and live in the new house before renovating, I am not in a huge hurry to start. I've been getting a feel for the place. The rental I am living in is only a short distance away, so at different hours of day or night I sometimes walk over to the new house to hang out. I've left a pair of comfortable, old chairs there, and have moved them around the rooms, sitting, observing and working through ideas. I've slung my hammock there and slept over a few times. This "think time" has produced good results and I have a good list of questions and ideas for the architect.

Speaking of the architect, Victor Cruz is on board and we've had a couple of planning meetings. His crew has drawn and measured the house and blueprints of the existing structure are in the works. In the past I've had Victor do a couple of smaller designs for me and I have seen a number of his projects. I like his work. I believe that Victor's style and skills will mesh well with this project.

Cleaned up, the floors look pretty good

The other delay right now is due to the fact that I bought two side-by-side properties. The original house was subdivided years ago and I am reuniting two houses with separate deeds. We can't obtain building permits to knock down partitions and open up doorways between two legally-separate structures, so I am waiting for my lawyer to work through the bureaucratic process and produce the single deed I need to restore the building as one house.

Added to that, I've got another new project in the works that could take priority and delay the start of construction for a few months. It looks as if this project may creep along on little cat feet for a while longer.

Text and photos copyright 2014 by Marc Olson