About this blog

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Wales, United Kingdom
You know those diagrams in science textbooks that show the water cycle? Water evaporates from the sea and cools as it rises over the land until it condenses into clouds. Well that's where I live - where the clouds are born. It's very beautiful here, and it's also very damp. I don't yet know what I'll be writing about here. I had a blog a few years ago called, "Growing Things and Making Things," and there will be some continuity with that, but my life has moved on since then. I'm at a stage of reflection and re-evaluation - you could call it a mid life crisis - and this blog will reflect that. There'll be posts about things I'm doing - foraging, cooking, crafts, daft experiments (which may overlap with any or all of the other three) - posts about my thoughts on life, photos of beautiful Welsh scenery, maybe some Welsh language, and probably a bit of politics. Because it's important.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Festive home-brew

Sometime in early November I started to wonder whether there was time to brew some wine for Christmas. There really isn't much available at this time of year, but I had a look at some recipes and found rosehip and nettle, both in John Seymour's book. I'd picked some rosehips and failed to make fruit leather out of them, so they might do, but the recipe said it would take up to three months to ferment, so that was no good for Christmas. On the other hand, the nettle wine would be drinkable after just a week, so that was a much better bet.

The recipe looked remarkably similar to the elderflower wine I'd made in the summer: Sugar - check. Lemons - check. Bits of plant - check. I wasn't sure about the quantities of bits of plant, though. For two gallons of wine, JS asked for 4 lb of nettle tips. Four pounds - that's ridiculous! I collected a bucketful, squashed down a bit. I have no idea what it weighed, but it definitely wasn't four pounds. When it came to boiling it down I had to fill the pan four times, though, so it really was quite a lot of nettles.

After the exploding elderflower wine incident, I'd promised myself I'd get demijohns before the next attempt. However, in the meantime I came across advice for budget airlocks, and really, it was the airlock I needed, not the container. The trick is to put a balloon over the neck of the bottle with a pinhole in it. As the gas builds up the balloon expands until there's enough pressure to open the little hole, then the gas escapes. On the other hand, there's no way any air's going to get in, because there's no pressure in that direction. Brilliantly simple - whoever thought of that was a genius!


Nettle wine with comedy balloon airlocks

Being the cheapskate that I am, I went round to the local shop and bought two packets of balloons ("I'm not sure if we've got any - what kind do you want?") for the princely sum of 55p a packet. Balloon airlocks are quite comical, especially the long, thin ones (if you have a juvenile sense of humour).

I left it in the bottles until the balloons started to go limp, then put them in a cool place for a bit (the conservatory - it's a massive spare fridge at the moment) because I'd heard that helps the yeast settle out. Then I decanted it all into fresh bottles and put lids on. I was rather hoping for 'secondary fermentation', giving me a fizzy wine, but that didn't happen.

I rather nervously tested it after a couple of weeks or so. I know you can make nettle beer, too, so I wasn't at all sure what to expect. Once I'd got the idea that it tasted more like cider than anything else, it was really quite nice. Good enough to give as Christmas presents, I thought. I hope the recipients agree!

Friday, 19 November 2010

Bread

Bread is not very expensive to buy, but in the spirit of self-sufficiency, I'd rather make it myself, even if it's not much cheaper. OK, it's not really all that self-sufficient if I'm having to buy flour and yeast, but still...

I've noticed that friends who make bread, and they tend to have bread makers, get very enthusiastic about variations on the basic receipe, and serve up bread with fancy ingredients such as olives, or sun-dried tomatoes in it. Very nice, but not really what I'm aiming for. Apart from the fact that this would ruin the bread for Ian, the point for me is just to make bread. You know, the kind you toast for breakfast in the morning, or make sandwiches out of for lunch. I'm not trying to improve on what I can buy in the shops. I should clarify that: I'd like to get something better than the soft squidgy stuff than comes in plastic bags, but if I can match a standard loaf bought from a baker's shop, I'll be very happy with that.

As a start, I went online to investigate recipes and found that some people get really passionate about this! In the course of my investigations, I learnt about 'no knead' bread. This takes a lot longer to rise, which apparently improves the digestibility of the bread, requires little or no kneading, and uses half the yeast of a normal recipe. All sounds good to me! The method sounded a little complicated, but I kept browsing until I came across a blog* saying, "I tried these recipes then cut corners until I came up with this." This is my kind of cook.

*Edit: I just rediscovered that blog - The Really Good Life - and inserted the link.

The recipe goes:

Mix 1 lb flour with 1/2 tsp dried yeast, 1 tsp salt and 340 ml cold water (can be mixed with a spoon)
Leave approx 12 hours/overnight at room temperature until doubled in size
Add a bit more flour and fold the dough in on itself (this is easier done with hands than a spoon)
Put in a tin and leave for another two hours, also at room temperature, to rise again
Cook at gas mark 6 (that's what my oven needs. I forget what this is in degrees) for about 45 min
Test by removing from the tin and tapping the bottom. If it sounds hollow, it's ready. If not, put it back in the oven (won't need the tin any more) for another five min.

I bought myself a bag of white bread flour but didn't bother buying yeast as I have an old tin of yeast in the cupboard which still seemed to be alive when I used it for elderflower wine, so I thought it would probably be OK. I tried the recipe and it was fine. Rather dense, but still tasty bread, so fine. I tried varying the kind of flour I used - strong bread flour is fairly expensive, standard flour cheaper and, obviously, 'value' flour cheapest of all. Although I know in theory strong flour has more protein in it, so makes better bread, I found that the kind of flour I used didn't make a huge amount of difference to the resultant loaf. They were still rather dense, though.

I was chatting to my friend Sam, who's a farmer's wife and knows about these things. She said that she'd done much the same and found that old dried yeast, while it works, isn't terribly enthusiastic. She encouraged me to get some more yeast, so I did. While I was at it, I thought I might as well get actual fresh yeast instead of dried. The result was dramatic - a light, fluffy loaf of bread. It even smelled better while it was cooking.


Demonstrating the difference made by fresh yeast

So there you have it. It's possible to make a decent loaf of bread with the cheapest flour, but the yeast really matters.