About this blog

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Wales, United Kingdom
In autumn 2010, my husband Ian and I both quit our jobs, sold our house and left the flatlands of the east for the mountains of Wales. Our goal is to create a more self-sufficient lifestyle in a place we actually like living. Whilst Ian will continue to earn some money as a freelancer, my part of the project is to reduce how much we spend by growing and making as much of what we need as possible. The purpose of this blog is to keep friends updated with how the grand project is progressing, but all are welcome here. If you're not a friend already, well perhaps you might become one.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Capel Bangor Show

I wrote half a post about this a couple of years ago and never posted it. The show is now an important fixture in our calendar and we went to this year's show last Saturday. This post covers a mixture of two years ago and last Saturday.

Agricultural and horticultural shows are a major feature of life here. It's possible to spend every weekend of the summer relaxing in a different field, watching horses, cattle, pigs, sheep, and other animals paraded around a ring for your entertainment. Any idiot who organises an event in the same week as the Royal Welsh has only themselves to blame when no-one turns up (yes, we've done that). Our local show is in Capel Bangor, a village about ten miles away, and we've attended for the last three years.

Whilst there are sheep...

... and the shearing competition is well worth watching...

... the show mainly features horses.

Unfortunately, I'm not terribly interested in horses.


Not horses, 2014

The lady to the left of the caravan talked to me at great length about peanut butter cookies (her recipe is very rich), ballet (her teacher cried when she gave it up to do A levels), drinking champagne at the Playboy club, and flummery, amongst other things.

I arranged for our friend Keith to drive a tractor for the first time. It went like this: We were chatting to Brython when his son Sion, who's in charge of the vintage and classic vehicles section, came over and spoke to him in Welsh. After Sean had gone Brython said, a little grumpily, I suppose I'm going to have to drive a tractor, then. Last time I did, I got covered in oil. (He was quite smartly dressed at the time.) Then, to me, Would you like to drive a tractor? Me: No, but Keith would. (He'd told me so earlier in the day.) I went off to find Keith, and told him there was an opportunity to drive a tractor if he wanted it, and he did.


Keith driving Brython's tractor in the parade.
Ian is driving the 2CV in the background.

Sadly, the 2CV is off the road at the moment. Well, it's not really sad because she'll be in much better shape when she comes home, but we had hoped she might be back by now. Ian still takes part in the old vehicle display, in whatever vehicle he has at the time.


Ian's Mitsubishi Colt, bought just a few days before the show. I blame Tim Minchin.

Did I mention tractors?

There was a competition to guess the weight of this one...

... and there was even a little one for children to sit on:

There were other stalls as well. Our friend Mavis had a cake stall.


Most excellent cakes at Make or Bake

While Ian gets involved with the old cars, I'm more interested in the produce tent.

In here may be found competitions for all kinds of garden produce, baking, crafts, photography (Most of which had separate classes for children) and - my favourite section - home brew (no children's class).


Garden produce

At the far end is a class for Vase of herbs, which I entered, but I think I misjudged the criteria. I went for aesthetic appeal, but the others seemed to be more about usefulness of herbs. I suppose I should have worked that out from the fact that it was in the produce section. Also, I may have been marked down for including weeds in my vase. How can you say rosebay willowherb isn't a herb? It's in the name!

I had a suspicion that the pickles and preserves were judged more on appearance than flavour, and filled a narrow jar of pickled samphire very carefully (it's the one with the luggage label, which rather hides how nicely all the samphire is lined up), but to no avail. My friend Jane explained to me that jars should show no signs of having been used before, should have white lids, and white labels should be on the lower half of the jar, but this isn't written down. My samphire came nowhere.

My two entries in the wine classes (rhubarb in the dry white; sloe in the sweet red) both won, in spite of poor presentation (I didn't even clean the old labels off the bottles). This led to me being awarded the cup for wines, which was nice. Honesty forces me to confess that the reason was that the entries for wine looked like this:

Two years ago, the first time I nervously entered a single bottle of wine (nicely presented in a clean bottle), I arrived to find an older couple unloading a crateful of homebrew: Three entries in each category. I felt a bit intimidated by this, and was over the moon when my oak leaf wine came first in its class. I haven't seen them since.

I was more pleased that my bog myrtle ale came second, as there was more competition in the beer classes:

I also entered an interesting fir cone ale, which came nowhere, but the judges drank an awful lot of it in coming to that decision.

It's a lovely day, and very relaxing because there's almost nothing to do apart from mooch around and chat to people. Relaxing, that is, apart from the excitement of the produce competitions!

Thursday, 4 August 2016

A good year for samphire

It's interesting looking back to see that I wasn't that taken with pickled samphire the first time I tried it. That was before I discovered this combination:


A biscuit* topped with mascarpone cheese and pickled samphire

This is divine! With samphire thus elevated to the status of a delicacy, I consider it well worth the effort of gathering it.

There's also vinegar to consider. Last year I attempted to make vinegar. There's a brief note of the result hidden away in this post. Having looked at the relative prices of decent vinegar and pickling vinegar I bought the cheap stuff. It was pretty dreadful but even with that, pickled samphire was good. This year I have kombucha, which will make vinegar from sugar if left alone for long enough. I fed it some of the too-sweet oak leaf wine and now I have some pretty awesome (and very strong) vinegar.

Last Saturday I was in town around lunch time, so checked the tide times and as luck would have it, low tide was about 1pm, so I went up to the estuary (town is kind-of on the way) to check out the samphire.

I could see it - at least I thought I could, as soon as I parked the car.


That bright green strip across the sand was - I was fairly sure - marsh samphire

Closer inspection confirmed this.


Yep, definitely samphire.

I haven't seen such big plants before - these are fantastic. I think maybe I've been later in the season in previous years, after sheep have been allowed to graze here. I spent an hour and a half foraging, and collected rather more than I usually do in in two or more hours. After that, I walked down to the beach.

That's really not a bad way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

Of course, once I got all that samphire home, I had to process it. That means carefully picking it over, rinsing off the sand and any seaweed and small shellfish that I'd missed when picking, and pinching off only the tenderest pieces for pickling, leaving the parts that have a woody core. It took ages, but it's worth it.

A few notes on pickling: For a crisper result, I now know to use cold vinegar. The tannin from the oak leaves should also help with crispness. However, I did heat the vinegar first to kill it. I want an inert pickle, not one that's going to eat its way through the samphire. I also mixed the vinegar with some beer that had been flavoured with rosebay willowherb tips. The vinegar was so strong that it could do with diluting a bit, and this beer adds a complementary flavour. During the heating phase, I infused some garlic mustard seeds, too. Then while I was making a cup of tea and looking at a pan of hot pickling liquid, I poured milk into the pan. Don't do that.

The best thing to do at that point was, I decided, to leave the kitchen and drink my tea. By the time I came back, the milk had separated somewhat, so I strained out the curds, left it to settle, carefully poured off the clearer liquid... repeated. There's a slight cloudiness in the bottom of my jar of samphire, and no doubt there's some whey in the pickling liquid. In that much vinegar I doubt it'll have any impact, but I repeat, I don't recommend doing that. Even so, pickled samphire is still worth it.

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*It's a digestive biscuit, just for Cat ;-)

Monday, 1 August 2016

Gŵyl Awst Hapus / Happy Lammas

Lammas, also known as Lughnasadh or in Welsh, Gŵyl Awst*, is a festival that hasn't been adopted into our modern calendar, though we do have the August bank holiday at the end of the month. It's the first of three harvest festivals, traditionally the wheat harvest.

I don't have wheat or any other grain, but I do have that modern import from the new world, potatoes, and I started harvesting them a few days ago. They're a bit small, really, but I have maincrop potatoes for growing big. I will eat these as they are, and all the better for it.


Today's harvest

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* Literally, August festival