About this blog...

Food has been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember. Food and the festivities surrounding its arrival to the table has always been a focal point in our family. For many years I have been amassing the cookbooks, recipe cards, cooking journals, diaries, manuscripts and clipping files of our once extensive family.

Personally, I’ve been professionally involved with food for over 40 years in numerous and varied culinary capacities across the country so I also have the collected stories, as well as current and on-going food-related experiences from my own life I’d like to share.

My idea has long been that someday I would bring all of this marvelous raw material together into a culinary journey through our family’s heritage. This journal is the beginnings of that journey.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Dog Days of Connecticut - Hot-Doggin' it, day 2 (part 2)

July 29 2011, Day two of  "The Great 2011 CT Hot Dog Tour"  continued...

Following our superb breakfast at O'Rourke's Diner in Middletown CT we hurried off to Colchester for an appointment I had made to visit, and talk shop with fellow artisan cheese maker Mark Gilman, of Cato Corner Farms and to see his operation.

The farm was humming.  This is one of Mark's busiest weekends of the year.  They are coordinating the packaging and other preparations for two very large, once-a-year, special festival events, on top of getting ready for the numerous regional farmers' markets they attend and supply as well as servicing their regular weekly wholesale accounts.  

It was a logistical nightmare (at least it would have been for me) but Mark, while obviously keeping very busy, seemed to have a good handle on everything. He multi-tasked well, directing a small, swarming cadre of workers efficiently and effectively.  To their credit, they all seemed sharp, caring, motivated and well-versed at the wide variety of disparate jobs going on simultaneously.

That he had been willing to have us come here now, during our very limited time in the area, despite all these extra demands on his time give you a glimpse of what a gracious man he is.

Outfitting us in the requisite disposable over-booties, making sure we had appropriate hair restraints and slipping into his own clean-room boots he began the tour in what had once been his aging "cave".  Basically a walk-in cooler with humidity controls it was now use for storing ready-to sell stock.  Today it was packed floor-to-ceiling and front to back with dozens of large plastic RubberMaid containers, all neatly labeled with the name of the market or festival, or customer it had been packed for.  Amazing.

We moved through the sanitizing footbaths into the cheese making room.  A wall of warm, humid air hit us especially hard, coming from the cheese-holding cooler and my eye glasses fogged up immediately.  Here, Mark introduced us to two of his hard-working helpers.  They were cleaning up and scrubbing the room down having just fininshed their cheese-making activities for the morning.  At this point Mark got called away to sort out a order-filling question and we had the chance to chat for a while with the guys.  They were funny, knowledgeable, and really seemed to enjoy their cheese-making duties at the farm. Thanks guys.

Upon his return, Mark took us down to his current aging room - a true cellar.  Oh, if I could only bottle that aroma...!  In the dairy's large basement Mark has set up a near-ideal cheese aging environment.  Naturally temperature-buffered from being underground and having lots of therrmal mass in its masonry floors, walls and ceilings, the environment need only to be occasionally tweaked to adjust for seasonal swings .

In this long room, Mark has set up lots (and LOTS) of simple block-and-board shelves, with just enough room between to ensure good airflow in and around his cheeses and barely enough for he and his workers to get in and do the regular periodic turning and aging, brushing and washing (IE affinage) that the hundreds of cheese require.

We spent a lot of time in the cellar.  Mark seemed very comfortable here, away from the hustle and demands of the organized chaos going on above us and I finally got to ask him some in-depth questions about his operation.  In addition to being extremely knowledgeable about his cheeses and cheese-making in general, he was endearingly open, thoughtful and honest about the some of the difficulties the farm has and does face as a business.
We talked about regulators and competitors, the economy, bankers and insurance headaches, feed supply and overhead costs, "high maintenance customers", and market share.  Poor Cynthia and Jim must have been about bored to tears but I'm sure it was a bit cathartic for both Mark and me.

I really didn't want to leave the solace of the aging room but Mark said the one thing that could have motivated me best,  "Want to sample some of my cheeses?" OH YES, PLEASE!  So back up the slick wooden steps we trudged, back up into their wrapping/packing/sampling area.

This room too was jam-packed with in-progress preparations for the weekend.  Stacks of legal-for trade market scales  competed for space with piles of hotel pans, rolls of labels and more partially-filled bins of product, ready for distribution. A steady stream of busy-bee employees came through, each focused on their task at hand, non phased in the least by a request from Mark or another worker "Oh, and can could you also make sure that... gets done"?  "Sure, No problem" came the answers, and off they went.

Mark helped Patrick get a few more orders ready to go so that there was room on the table for our tasting, and asked another worker for a list of wheels form the cellar he wanted to cut into.  

Soon a section of space was open enough on which to work and Mark began.  He started, naturally, with his gentlest cheeses, talking about each - their provenance and development, giving us small pieces to try as he spoke.
He worked his way slowly through to some slightly stronger cheeses.  We got to try an exceptional and rare cheddar and then moved on to the blues and finally to his "stinky cheese".  At one point during the tasting he was interrupted for a few minutes when one of his retailers arrived for his weekly order.  It was interesting listening to their respectful and productive discourse where it was clear that they each understood how mutually beneficial their relationship was - so different than the typical, almost adversarial, relationship between many wholesalers and their retailer counterparts. 

We enjoyed all of Mark's cheeses and put together a large list of ones to buy that he and a helper quickly cut, wrapped, and bagged for us.  I was more than happy to pay full retail price to help support this incredible farm (not to mention help assuage my guilt for co-opting so much of his precious time this morning), but Mark still gave us a generous discount.

Not wanting to take any more of his time, but also wanting to at least see "the girls" We asked if we could just wander around a bit on our own.  "Of course", he said.
Mark, the proud (and deservingly so) cheese maker
So we mosied out past the milking barn to visit briefly the The Girls, a gorgeous herd of lovely brown Gurnseys, looking very at home on their lush, very green and beautiful rolling hills.  A few even came up to bid us good-bye to us.  If I'm ever reincarnated as a cow, can I live here...please?

to be continued...

Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Dog Days of Connecticut - Hot-Doggin' it, day 2 (part 1)

The wake-up call came WAY too early, despite the clock saying it was 7am, exactly the correct time.  That might have something to do with the fact that I stayed up until almost 4am local time (just not sleepy, writing yesterday's blog entry) or, perhaps that my Arizona-tuned body still thought it was 3-hours earlier than the clocks here think it is.  Regardless, I groggily got up but was soon ready for Day Two of the "The Great 2011 CT Hot Dog Tour".

Before I get to that, a couple of words about our motel.  The Red Carpet Inn in Cheshire is a gem.
I mean look at their sign...
Look CLOSER...

Now that's not something you see everyday on a motel sign in Connecticut, or most other places in the USA either.  The owners of this crisp, clean and freshly-renovated motel are a couple from India.  We met the wife when we checked in late last night.  This morning I was hanging around outside waiting for Cynthia and Jim to emerge when a dark-skinned man came out from the office.  He, very politely (and with a lovely lilted eastern accent) asked if there was anything he could help me with.  

Despite his cordiality, I could tell he was a little suspicious of me.  He said that a guest had called him to report a man in the parking lot taking pictures (Huh?  Me? Ummm,  I'm a tourist - so sue me!).  I told him I was a guest and that I was just appreciating the Inn's beautiful landscaping (good GRIEF it's green here!).  I also commented on the unusual signage and asked about it.  He explained that it was their way of showing respect.  Respect to their neighbors, respect to their guests, respect to people just passing by. "In my country we say Namaste.", he said, putting his hands together just like on the sign, and bowing ever so slightly.

Namaste indeed, my friend.

C&J soon popped out of their room, looking ready to take on the day and we hit the road.  First stop today: O'Rourke's Diner in Middletown CT for breakfast.

Cynthia and Jim are kind of diner groupies and have been trying to get to O'Rourke's for about 100 years (or so it sounds listening to them).  It's a tale of woe.  A true saga.  An epic story of near misses, ships passing in the night, love lost, tragic circumstances and seemingly insurmountable challenges of Olympic proportion.  But today, the Gods were smiling.

We easily navigated to Middletown and quickly found a parking spot just a few feet from O'Rourke's front door.  O'Rourke's, according to Jim, was once a classic Mountain View Diner based on the 1920-30's art deco designs of actual railroad dining cars but it had suffered a tragic fire at some point and was no longer authentic. 

 I don't know.  To a completely untrained eye, it still looked pretty much like a diner to me (very cool stainless steel and aluminum everywhere, big sections of glass block, lots of tile and funky period lighting etc).  

Besides, WHO CARES when there are such great smells coming out the door.  Let's eat!

The inside of the small space was crowded and lively.  All of the counter stools and most of the other seating was occupied but we were immediately directed to a window booth where a sample plate of assorted Irish breads and three large menus instantly appeared.

I used the word "eclectic" to describe the menu at the Olympic Diner where we had dinner last night and it was tempting to repeat that description again here.  I mean the O'Rourke's menu features a huge selection of a wide range of types of foods spanning the three typical meals a day, plus plenty of entries and offerings not quite so easily pigeon-holed or categorized (and a bunch of borderline- avant garde off-menu specials too).  That's eclectic  right?  Well... Sort-of.

The thing about O'Rourke's is that there is a solid under-pinning knitting all these wildly diverse menu parts together and keeping them from being that jumbled, playfully dysfunctional disarray that the term "eclectic" implies.  At first I thought that the undercurrent was the Irish theme which certainly runs strongly throughout but while the theme is strong, it is not universal. The one thing that is universal at O'Rourke's is "The Brian Factor".

Brian O'Rourke is the chef at O'Rourke's.  "Chef" is not a term that I throw around carelessly or casually and I can say, for a fact, that I have never used it to describe another cook at a diner, irrespective of their training or talents.  Chef Brian is the heart of O'Rourke's and his presence  permeates every crack and crevice of the operation, like a real heart supplying oxygen to every cell in a body. He is also the soul of O'Rourke's, the canvass on which it is painted and the nurturing protective blanket that keeps it thriving even on the most wicked New England winter night.

That's enough about Brian,  for now.  

This is our waitress Tina.
Tina was in all ways pleasant, efficient, accurate and easygoing despite being obviously busy.  In short, she was a perfect server.  It is the bane of all restaurants that there is such a high turnover in the ranks of the service staff and even more acutely so at the diner/family restaurant level where seldom are the servers career professionals but usually college kids, wannbe actors etc, biding their time until something better comes along.  Whenever I get a great server like Tina I can't help but lament the fact that she will probably not be there for very long.

The good news for O'Rourke's (and especially for O'Rourke's customers) is that Tina is not "just" a server.  Later in the meal, after we'd chatted for a bit and I'd explained that I was taking all the pictures for my food blog, she gave me her business card.  Tina is also O'Rourke's "Marketing Coordinator" - and I bet she's great at that too!

After a few minutes with the menus, Tina stopped by to present the morning's specials.  I wish I could remember them all and do justice to their collective inspired creativity, but I think my brain cells were only half firing from near-starvation.  It had been almost 10 hours since I'd eaten!  I do recall her describing a number of fritata's, including one with duck and  and then what she called   a "Soft Shell Crab and poached egg" special.  Well, my mind latched onto that one and wouldn't let it go. The rest of her spiel was background noise as, fully on alert now, my head and my stomach discussed back-and-forth this unexpected breakfast pairing. 

Maybe it's because I'm an old New England boy too long in the desert but I have a very hard time passing up the prospect of good seafood, shellfish in particular, whenever it is offered to me.  I love soft shelled crabs and felt incredibly lucky to be near water again during it's short season.  I've had, and enjoyed, soft shelled crab Benedict, to which this sounded similar. It should have been a no-brainer to order this special but something was holding me back.  I was hesitant.  In  thinking back about it I'm pretty sure my head was asking my stomach "Are you seriously thinking about ordering soft shelled crab, at a DINER"?

Stomach won out and the whole of me, in unison, took a leap of faith and ordered it. Cynthia ordered Irish Soda bread and bangers with home fries, Jim ordered a single buckwheat pancake and we got an order of lamb sausage for the table.

C and I worked on our pot of coffee and Jim on his hot tea as we discussed our rather ambitious plan for the day and waited for our food, but the chat soon dissolved into silence as we began to more fully appreciate what a great people-watching opportunity O'Rourke's presented.  Lots of colorful characters from all walks of life, elbow-to-elbow.  Overlapping snippets of conversation on every possible subject competed with the hum of big fans and the chatter of plates, glasses and silverware.  The amazing thing was that, despite its immediacy and disparity, the noise level wasn't really very high overall.

My breakfast was the first to arrive, followed quickly by the rest of the food.  Calling it "Soft Shell Crab with Poached Egg" was like calling Julia Child's Boeuf Bourguignonne "beef stew" or saying that traditional Pollo Mole Poblano is "Mexican Chicken Sauce".  Masters of the understatement, the crew at O'Rourke's had caught me completely off guard.  My plate consisted of... a large soft shelled crab that had been pan fried in a coarse breading until crisp and perfect.  Distributed around three side of the crab were a set of five or six small fritters or croquettes. Towering above the crab, in a margarita-style footed glass, 2 poached eggs, and a little Hollandaise sauce rested on top of another croquet or  fish-cake . Sprinkled and arranged elsewhere on the plated was a baby beet, a baby carrot, a couple of green beans, and a confetti of other vegetables and a couple of kiwi fruit slices..

Holy smokes!  What a fabulous treat!  For my initial taste I went right for the soft-shell crab and it was sublime.  Within a few moments of my first bite a big man in a black chef's toque approached the table.  This was Brian. Hovering just a bit, and working to subdue a bit of well-deserved pride, he asked what I thought of my breakfast."That's a crab cake there under those eggs, you know", he said, "and those are scallop fritters".
Chef Brian describes the food
At this point I made a grievous tactical error.  Being severely allergic to many white fishes and having had more then my share of close calls with things like crab cakes made or extended with "surimi" (fake crab meat), I asked him, "Is there any fish or fake crab in these"?

After a brief pause he replied "Is there what?".  I repeated the question.  Brian, bending down now: "Is-there-what??" So I, being somewhat extra-dense at this hour of the day, repeated it one more time.  Brian (this time leaning very close to my face, and raising his voice a bit more): "Is there WHAT????" At which point I finalized realized that he was not hard of hearing , but toying with me, insulted that I might think he would have used such a lame culinary short-cut in such a beautiful dish.

I apologized quickly and briefly explained my allergy.  This seemed to mollify his concerns and he relaxed a bit quipping, as he rushed of to his next task, "Well I may have an epi-pen somewhere in the back, and it's better if you don't die in my dining room".  And he was gone.

At  last alone again with my meal I was able to further explore it's intricacies and play in the playground of its many flavors.  The crab cake initially seemed a little dense but deliciously "crabby" util I broke the poached egg onto it at which point it melted together into a perfect new taste and ideal consistency.  The little scallop fritters were amazing.  Popping on into my mouth produced a mini explosion of sweet scallop flavor. Everything worked together perfectly but was also excellent as stand-alone items.  I grudgingly shared small amounts with Cynthia and Jim, but I'm afraid I was not as generous as politeness might have dictated.  Tough luck!

Both Cynthia's and Jim's meals were also quite good but how much can one write about a buckwheat pancake?
"Lamb Sausage"

Cynthia's breakfast at O'Rourke's
After a leisurely finish to our meal, we purchased an O'Rourke's coffee mug souvenir and headed off to our next destination.

Rating: 10 out of 10 points.  The few minor disappointments (the lamb "sausage" patty, for example, was way under-seasoned to our palates and tasted like plain ground lamb) and little foibles during the meal were so over-shadowed by excellent service, overall creativity of the menu and superb execution by the kitchen that I was temped to give it 11 out of 10 possible points  Great work guys!.

(Continued Here)

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Hot-Doggin' It in Connecticut

Today I am winging off the to the other side of the country to begin a short east coast tour of artisan cheese dairies to do extensive local cheese tastings, and meet and discuss farmstead cheese making with other like-minded dairy professionals.  

IRS representatives , please stop reading here.

Between these 100% business-related dairy stops, [ahem, cough] this trip, more commonly (and perhaps more accurately) referred to as "The Great 2011 CT Hot Dog Tour"  by my sister, will be a food-centric journey across the state aimed at visiting as many of the highly regarded wiener joints of CT as possible  with an additional healthy (??) smattering  of clam shacks, ice cream parlors and diners thrown in for "balance".

It all started when I sent my sister Cynthia and Jim the DVD "A Connecticut Hot Dog Tour"
They liked the video so much that they bought and sent ME a copy to watch.  C and I grew up in CT but never really knew what a mecca it was for weiner afficianados.  Anyway, what started out as a "We should really get together sometime and see how many of these places we can hit in a weekend" quip evolved into a pipe dream, then into an authentic idea and eventually, into a plan.  We were really going to do this someday... and today is the day!

My day started at 4:30am with hitching a ride with a friend to our regional airport for a puddle-jummper flight down to Phoenix, connecting (after eating part of a really bad Einstein bagel at one of the terminals) to a SW Air flight to Hartford CT via Baltimore.

The honey peanuts and the (new to me and very strange) "Golden Oreo" cookies on the first leg of the flight were not quite enough to keep me going but fortunately I had about an hour between flights so could grab a bite at Baltimore-Washington International.

Not expecting anything better than a bad sandwich I was stunned upon seeing a sign at BWI that they were home to Obrycki's, one of the Frommer's-rated 10 best airport restaurants in the country!  Not only that, but it was located just 2 gates down from the one where I had arrived, and from which I would subsequently depart. The stars were aligned!

 Obrycki's not only had regional Maryland specialties on their menu but also a couple of house beers on tap.  Just what the doctor ordered.

I ordered their "famous since 1944" crab cakes and an Obrycki pale ale. The service was efficient, almost brisk  (as is to be expected and appreciated in an airport setting) and pleasant.
The crab cake was one of the best I've had.  Chock-full of lump crab, no fillers or fake stuff.  It was barely held together by a light binder, lightly breaded and pan-fried.  I suspect that they must make these up a few ahead of time, before needed, as mine was out so fast and was not quite as hot or crisp as I might would expect for hot-off-the pan, but it was still very excellent.  It was served with a nicely fiesty cocktail sauce having just the right zip of horseradish and lemon juice and accompanied by some pretty decent french fries and coleslaw. The beer was also very good.

Rating: 9 out of 10.  I wish the crab cake had been just-made, it would have been perfect.  I understand and appreciate the thinking behind not doing it, but I gotta dock the point anyway.

The next leg of the flight took just 50 minutes in the air (with more peanuts, thank-you-very-much!), and landed at Hartford's Bradley International at just about 6pm local time.  C&J's train from Philly had been delayed but they showed up about 30 minutes after I did and we met up easily and as planned.

Our timing was perfect, wallking out the arrivals door just in time to see the big yellow Hertz car rental shuttle van pulling up.  In seconds we were on our way to the rental center.  Unfortunately that's where our luck ran out.  Short-staffed, inefficient and often down-right rude, the car rental process was interminable (despite Jim having pre-booked the car well in advance).  It took us longer to rent the car than my whole flight from Baltimore to Hartford took. We eventually got through, got the car (Toyota Rav4) and were off on our adventure.

First stop? Dinner at a diner.  We chose the Olympia diner in Newington.  A classic O'Mahoney diner resplendent with plenty of roomy booths, lots of neon and polished stainless steel, table-top juke boxes and other deco touches.

The menu was extensive and eclectic.  Breakfast "served all day", a seafood section, an Italian section, a Greek section, lots of sandwiches including a whole column of "grinders" (CT's version of the sub/hoagie/hero etc), a list of "from the grill", and many diner staples like Liver and Onions, Meatloaf, breaded pork chops etc.

C ordered a tuna melt, fries and a vanilla shake.  Jim had 2 eggs scrambled, sausage, homefries and toast, I had a Genoa Salami Grinder and a side of onion rings.

The food was, almost without exception, very good - with a few stand-outs.  To the plus side,Cynthia pronounced the Vanilla Milkshake as "exceptional" and we all thought that the breakfast sausage that Jim got was some of the best we'd ever had.  On the downside, the battered onion rings, while obviously freshly hand made in the kitchen, were quite hard as opposed to being crisp, as expected.

The waitress told us that they made all their own desserts on-site so how could I refuse?  "Hot Apple Pie, a la mode with vanilla ice cream, please.  And could I have another side of those delicious sausage??"  Not as strange a combination as it might seem at first (doesn't everybody like the pairing of pork and apples?), but unfortunately the pie was just another Mrs Smith's (or comparable) frozen pie that had been baked in the back.  Somebody really needs to tell the wait staff (everywhere, not just here at the Olympia)  that that honestly doesn't count as "made on-premise".  The ice cream was nothing special but, again, the sausages were perfect.

The service was friendly and quite perky, if a bit sloppy (finished  plates remained stacked on the table for far too long, a couple of items ordered were out of sinc with the rest of the meal etc), and the place, on-whole, was brightly lit, well-kept, and fairly clean  (the floor was a bit sticky).  Minor peeve: the table-top jukebox gleefully sucked $1 of our money and played our 7 songs but at such a low volume that we had to strain to tell if it was even working.  I understand them being set as not to disturb other diners but, even in the nearly empty room in which we ate, it was way too low.  I can't imagine hearing it at all with a few more tables filled, let alone during a rush.

Overall rating: 7.5 out of 10.  A few dazzling bright spots amid general mediocrity, but we could have done much, much worse for our first outing.

Pretty much knackered from a long and eventful day for all, we headed to our motel (Red Carpet Inn, Cheshire CT) and crashed for the night after leaving a 7am wake-up calls.  Big day with much to do tomorrow!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Chicken Cordon Bleu

It was Kathryn and my wedding anniversary yesterday (29 years!) and, like any good husband, I'd asked her where she wanted to go for a nice dinner.  Like any cook's wife, she responded "The place I like to eat best is home, with your cooking". (ain't that sweet?)
So, of course the next question was "So, what would you like me to make?".  Without a moment's hesitation she said "Chicken Cordon Bleu".
I can almost hear your incredulous grunts and see your eyes roll.  "What?  That hackneyed old diner stand-by?"  Well, yes AND no.
Chicken Cordon Bleu, while French-sounding by design("cordon bleu" means "blue ribbon" in French), is a dish of breaded chicken breasts with ham and cheese that originated in the1960s in the United States.  It was quite popular on restaurant menus through the end of the 20th century and the basic flavor combination retains a following as is evidenced by the Chicken Cordon Bleu sandwiches etc that still pop up on fast food restaurant menus from time to time.  The U.S. even "celebrates" a National Chicken Cordon Bleu Day (it was on April 4th this year and now MY eyes are rolling).
The Chicken Cordon Bleu that Kathryn was requesting was one I'd made for her in the past and while classic in style and presentation, it is made exceptional by being able to use all ranch made and grown ingredients in its preparation. 
Another of what we like to call our "meals that are years in the making" I made this one with chicken breasts from birds we'd raised and butchered ourselves.  The ham isn't wasn't just "ham" but Capocola, a rich and spicy ham we cure and smoke right here from hogs that we've grown-out primarily on cheese whey and butchered here on property. I'd made the Swiss cheese for the dish  last winter from our own goat's milk. The veloutè sauce was made from the chicken stock I'd made and frozen when we butchered and processed the meat chickens last fall, I'd baked the bread I processed into bread crumbs for the coating, and even churned the goat's milk butter that the Cordon Bleu's were sautéed in.  It just doesn't get any more "home-made" than that!
Here's my process for making Chicken Cordon Bleu...
Sandwich each chicken breast between sheets of plastic wrap.
Gently flatten each chicken breast to 1/4" thick, or a little thinner

Like this

Remove the top piece of plastic wrap.
Lay pieces of thinly-sliced ham on the breast.
I used about 3 oz per breast

Make a cylinder out of 2-3 oz of grated Swiss cheese.

Fold about a third of the breast over the fillings.
Use the bottom plastic wrap to help you work.

Fold the ends up.

Continue rolling until the breast meat completely encases the fillings.
Repeat with remaining breasts

Wrap individually in plastic wrap and refrigerate to firm up

Basic Breading Procedure
Dredge each Cordon Bleu in well seasoned flour, then...

Thoroughly coat each Cordon Bleu in beaten eggs, then...

Coat each Cordon Bleu well with fresh bread crumbs.

Chill thoroughly.

Saute each Cordon Bleu in butter over medium heat to set the crust
and brown nicely on all sides.
Do not overcrowd the pan.

The Cordon Bleus will still be quite under-cooked at this point.
Refrigerate until about 40 minutes before serving or move directly to the next step.

Bake in a pre-heated 375 degree oven (350 degree convection oven)
until properly cooked all the way through and the cheese is melted
(about 145F chicken temp, 120F cheese center temp)
This took about 30 minutes in my oven.
Let sit at room temperature for a couple of minutes before plating.

Slice the Cordon Bleus into about 1/2" sections and arrange on plates
with accompaniments 
(in this case Saffron Rice and Zucchini Provencale)
Nape with a little chicken veloute sauce
(lightly thickened blond chicken stock)

Thursday, July 7, 2011

"Colony-Style" Rabbit Keeping

I mentioned in a previous post on Butchering Rabbits that we had raised rabbits for meat in a "colony-style" setting.  That is not, apparently a management style that is very well know or widely discussed as I have have had numerous contacts for more information about it.
Here is a re-print of some information on the subject we published on an ancient iteration of our Ranch Website.
This pretty much sums up my total knowledge about raising rabbits in the colony style.  The information is almost a decade old so you might want to do more research elsewhere if you're seriously interested in the subject.......
In early December of 2001 we gave up on the traditional, standard cage approach to breeding.  Nothing we tried had worked and we had not gotten a single live litter in 8 months of working with our fancy, pedigreed Satins. 
Typical caged approach to raising rabbits (how we started out):

In desperation we converted, to a "Colony-Style" living arrangement for them, figuring that, if nothing else, the rabbits would be happier.  We also, over time, got rid of all those fancy rabbits and went with generic "white meat rabbits" from our local feed store for breeding stock - another excellent decision.  We now generally keep 4 to 6 breeding does and 1 or 2 bucks on hand at any given time, plus their litters.  The management changes have proved to be a great success for us.
"Colony-Style" Rabbit Keeping:
Colony-style rabbit raising is a meat rabbit management method that, at its most basic, is simply putting a group of doe rabbits and a buck or two in an escape-proof area and allowing them to do as nature intended.  We let ours share the space with our chickens in their large fenced pen and house.  The buns have a series of tunnels, runs, brambles and nest boxes in which to live and play.  Exactly 31 days (a rabbit's gestation period) from our conversion to this style we were presented with 3 fine nests of baby bunnies from our does.  The rabbits never looked back from there!

There are definite up- and down-sides to this style of keeping rabbits. 
To the upside, the amount of work for the keeper is efficiently minimized - keeping the communal feeders and waters filled is about it; also, the rabbits live a much more normal life -  running all over the place, hunting for food, interacting with others of their kind etc.  Another plus is that production of offspring can be maximized (see downsides).  The rabbits' overall health is greatly improved - allowing them lots of exercise, sunlight and space away from wire-floored cages, closed conditions and forced proximity to possible pathogens, they are much less likely to fall to the common diseases and ailments of traditional rabbitries.
On to the downside:
First, colony-style settings can be very rough on the does.  They are capable of getting pregnant again the day they give birth and in a pure colony situation they often do.  With no breaks, their bodies are under a tremendous amount of strain.  This fast cycling will yield the highest number of kits per doe per year (a goal the species certainly strives for in the wild), but you will also have to expect to replace your breeding stock much more frequently than with other management methods.
Two does relax in their colony-style setting

Second, there is no opportunity for micro managing your herd: forget about breeding calendars, special matings and such.  It is impossible to monitor or adjust the individual rabbits' feed consumption and harder to monitor their health.  Also, there are, generally, no opportunities for playing with the babies - at butchering time (at about 8 weeks of age) there are some essentially wild rabbits to contend with. 
This method is assuredly not for raising cuddly pet or show bunnies.
With all that said, we actually practice a MODIFIED colony style of management. We cycle our buck (or bucks) through the colony on a periodic basis but keep them in their own, separate (but adjacent) colony the rest of the time.  This dramatically cuts down on the wear and tear on the does.  It also allows us to regulate the number of litters and frequency of butcher days we need to have.  To be honest, with just 4 does and one buck we were harvesting 25 to 40 rabbits once a month and that was more than we could come close to keeping up with consuming! 
We also, from time-to-time, will take a just-weaned batch of kits (about 4 weeks of age), bring them in the house in a mini colony set-up and work on socializing them for the pet market.  Mostly in the spring, especially around Easter, it is well worth the effort for us to hand feed and spend time with a dozen or two baby bunnies so they can be sold tame as pets.
Here are some pictures of our rabbits and babies in their habitat...

August 2005 Update
As of this time we have dispersed our little rabbit herd to other breeders in the area but may get back into them again sometime in the future.  With enough rabbit in the freezer to keep us happy for a while, it didn't make much sense to keep the last 4 does just hanging around.