Where I grew up, in North Wales, there was a large Italian population, left over from the prisonor-of-war camps during World War II. Many of the Italians had worked on the farms in the area during the war. When the war was over, a lot of them had fallen in love with local women, and decided to stay and make a permanent home there.
One of these men was Guiseppe. He had fallen in love with a Welsh woman, but most definitely not the climate or the cuisine. He built a huge greenhouse in the back garden of his cottage, and there he propagated the flavours of the South: aubergines (eggplant), tomatoes, bell peppers. The kind of vegetables that grow very reluctantly in the rainy hills of Wales.
He often came to our farm, and traded the produce he had grown with my mother. She would take the exotic vegetables that were rare, even in the supermarkets, and in return, we would catch a chicken for his pot.
The only problem was his laid-back southern planning. He would rarely tell us he was coming beforehand. instead, he would walk up the lane, staggering under the weight of a crate of tomatoes, and my mother and I would spend an hour or two chasing the doomed bird around the farm, with Guiseppe’s grandson, little Joey, gleefully "helping."
It was a brilliant system nonetheless, and one I think that all smallholders and gardeners should consider. Trading vegetables, or meat, or homebrewed wine allows everyone to enjoy a diversity of flavours that would take much effort to produce themselves. Best of all, unlike selling surplus produce, no one at the Tax Office needs to know about it.
Here are some of my thoughts on how to make the transaction work for everyone:
1. Arrange in advance. Not only is it a pain to chase a chicken that has already been let out for the day, if you tell your home-brewing neighbour in mid-July that you would like to trade some vegetables for his beer, I guarantee you he has already grown very attached to his bottles, and mentally drunk them all. Tell him a few months in advance what you have planned, and he might be able to make some extra with you in mind.
2. Know the true value of what you are trading. It would have been easy for Guiseppe to have gone to the local supermarket, checked out the chickens and seen the cost was about five pounds. But he knew that my mother’s birds were pastured, organic birds, and that is worth a whole lot more. That’s why he brought along such a big box of vegetables.
3. Don’t make assumptions. Because you traded once with a neighbour, don’t assume this will be an ongoing arrangement. Call ahead and check every time you have something to swap.
This recipe is a way of using the old birds that Guiseppe took home. When a chicken reaches the end of its productive life, or a cockerel goes vicious, the soup pot is the best place for it.The really interesting thing about the recipe is the use of bolted lettuce.
During summer, which gardener hasn’t struggled to keep on top of the harvest and found the lettuces grown tall and inedible? The French have a soup called chiffonade that is made with lettuce, and my mother-in-law let me in on a secret: She makes it with bolted lettuce. It may sound a little strange to cook lettuce, but don’t be discouraged, it is wonderful in this soup.
I served the soup with garlic puree. Wash the soil off bulbs of fresh young garlic and, leaving them whole, wrap in foil and bake in a moderate oven, or in the embers of a fire, for an hour. When they are finished, you can squeeze the delicious puree out of the cloves and mix with a little olive oil and sea salt.
It is not overpoweringly garlicky, and any leftovers can be spread on toast or mixed in a vinaigrette.
• 1 boiling chicken
• bundle of pot herbs: onions, carrots, celery tops, bay leaves, parsley, whatever you have
• head of lettuce, bolted or not
• selection of garden vegetables. I used new potatoes and mangetout peas, but you can use whatever you have, as long as it is fresh and young; for example, baby leeks, broad beans or small turnips.
1. Cut the chicken up into large pieces. Pack into a pot with salt and pepper, and add water to just cover. Bring slowly to the boil, and skim off any scum that forms. Turn the heat down, and allow to simmer for 2 hours.
2. Add the pot herbs, pushing them in around the chicken pieces. The ingredients should not be swimming around loosely, but packed quite closely in the pot, for a good concentrated flavour.
3. After an hour of additional cooking, check the seasoning, and add salt and pepper to taste. Then pour the whole thing through a colander lined with a clean cloth, catching all the broth in a big bowl underneath. Allow to cool.
4. When the chicken is cool enough to handle, strip the meat from the bones and cut into small pieces. Cut the carrots into chunks and set aside.
5. Clean out the pan and add a knob of butter. Shred the lettuce, and melt it in the butter. A lot of water will come out, and the volume will reduce enormously, so use more than you think you need.
6. Add the long-cooking vegetables to the pot and sauté for a few minutes. Now return the broth and the chicken pieces to the pan, and slowly simmer until the vegetables are cooked. Before serving, turn the heat up high, and add the quick-cooking vegetables, such as the mangetout, and the carrot reserved from making the stock.
Serve with crusty bread and the garlic puree.
Hannah Wernet grew up self-sufficiently on a sheep farm in Wales. When she was 20, she moved to Austria where she works as a teacher and owns a small expat bar. She dreams of one day returning to a self-sufficient life in the French countryside. Read all of Hannah's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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