Down on the farm, reasons to celebrate come from unusual quarters. And after a day spent butchering chickens, writes Paulette Whitney, you take your kicks where you can find them.
Certain kinds of party demand a certain kind of guest. Our winter chicken coop had developed a bit of an imbalance. Too many blokes and not enough chicks. Some of the older girls had finished laying and were looking like they could use a break from the cold weather - in my stockpot. Usually on slaughter day my favourite treat is the heart, taken straight from the warm bird and thrown into a pan of melted, golden rooster fat with sage and salt, a just reward for hours spent with your hands inside dead roosters. But this time there were far too many innards for one woman to handle alone.
We assembled a cast of eager offal-eating friends. Roger and Sue, wine importers and food tourists; Varuni, an entomologist, culinary marvel and tea queen; Brian, a musician and curator of fun times; a small handful of children; and three chefs, Matt the farmer, David the alchemist and Tommy the fermenting forager. The offal party was born.
We lit a fire in the paddock and went for a wander in the garden. Varuni told me stories of seeing Sichuan mustard plants like those I was growing hanging from rafters to dry before being pickled in rural China, while my daughter serenaded Brian with her single-string version of "Smoke on the Water". We gathered herbs and a basket of cos lettuce heads as we wandered and Sue proffered a basket of saffron milk cap mushrooms she'd bought for the occasion. The fire had banked to glowing coals. Matt had nestled an Anna Swartz Hubbard squash into the embers at its edge while we were harvesting, and now he put the halved cos lettuces on the warm grill.
I began to render some of the bright yellow cavity fat I'd saved from one of the roosters but burnt it, so the alchemist gently but firmly elbowed me away from the fire towards my wine glass and took charge.
He wiped the burned fat from the pan and started again. Little tubs of fat, livers, hearts, gizzards and unborn eggs sat on a bench next to the fire awaiting their fate. David, working valiantly in the dark and the smoke, placed the gizzards on the edge of the grill. The fat that clung to their outsides slowly rendered away as they were seasoned and turned, gently cooking until they formed a tiny, smoky crust and a pink, just-cooked inside. The mushrooms were slowly braised in more rendered rooster fat, then slipped from the pan to make way for the hearts and livers, which met the heat for a brief moment, then went to the kitchen to be taken to another, higher level.
Tommy the fermenter took charge of the gizzards. He stole some of my crab-apples and dropped sour little shards on top of the quartered gizzards, then dressed his dish with a delicious Lapin cherry vinegar he'd made. The gizzards were a revelation. A tough ball of muscle, filled with tiny stones that the birds use to "chew" their food, they're often rejected, even by the dog. But prepared this way, their squeaky texture was unlike anything else, and the strong meaty taste was savoury and satisfying.
David chopped the livers into a chunky, loose paste that he folded with the grilled lettuce as a dressing, transforming the two into one of the tastiest things that has ever passed my lips. The bleeding hearts found their way onto a plate with tangy fermented radishes from our garden. We made a salad of radicchio and tiny sorrel leaves, anointed again with Tommy's cherry vinegar. I peeled the charred, blackened skin from the outside of the squash, revealing its iridescent orange flesh and our guests fell to the feast.
It felt a little like the loaves and fishes. Ten people fed admirably on the parts of 10 birds that are often discarded, supplemented, of course, with lubrication and conversation provided by friends. Amen.
Illustration Adriana Picker