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Wales, United Kingdom
Documenting one couple's attempts to live a more self-sufficient life.

Tuesday 26 July 2011


As I hacked my way through the jungle that used to be a tidy path between raised beds, I thought maybe I should have tackled this job sooner. Like housework, weeding is never finished, but the longer you leave it the worse it gets. The flip side of this, for both weeding and housework, is that you really notice the difference when you finally get round to it!

This is what one of my beds looked like this morning:

Can you spot the onions in there? Bonus points if you can see the parsnips too.

After spending most of the day weeding, this is what the same bed looked like this evening:

Still weeds in the foreground, but parsnips, onions and sunflowers now have their bit pretty much to themselves.

Non-gardeners often think weeding is difficult because you have to know what everything is so you don't pull up precious plants by mistake. In fact, for conventional veg gardening at least, it's not that difficult. On the basis that a weed is just a plant in the wrong place, if you know what plant should be there, telling the difference is a simple binary classification: Pea or not-pea? If you go in for companion planting, it gets a little more complicated: Onion, carrot, or neither-onion-nor-carrot?

As my plant knowledge grows this job actually gets harder. Instead of not-pea I'm now starting to see buttercup, forget-me-not, and sweet rocket. It's much easier to rip something out by the roots if you don't know its name. Mostly, everything has to go, but I will make an exception for wild pansies:

Wild pansy, hiding out amongst the peas.

Last of the blackcurrants and first of the peas

I have been very remiss with my blogging. This post should have been written early in the month, but my sister was staying, so blogging seemed a bit unsociable at the time, and then I got distracted...

As the title indicates, I picked the last of the blackcurrants from our bushes. These are the ones that I left first time round because they weren't ripe enough yet. They were certainly ripe by the time I picked them and I got about a pound, which isn't a huge amount, but enough to be worth picking. I got about 250 ml cordial out of them, and one jar of jam. When I first boiled up the jam I thought I'd gone too far and made toffee, panicked and added some water to thin it down to make two jars of jam. I obviously added too much water, as it didn't set, so it all went back in the pan, boiled a bit longer and into one jar, which set beautifully. I don't know whether it's toffee or not.

I also picked a handful to throw into some cake mix:

Blackcurrant cupcakes - most delicious

As for the peas, well, the supports are showing the strain a bit. I give them a shove from time to time and they haven't broken yet...

Pea canes struggling under the weight

They are well laden with pea pods:

Lots of yummy peas - well, they will be soon anyway

I started picking them a couple of weeks ago. They were too small then, really, but I wanted to share them with my sister, and they were very tasty!

Pod of peas picked at just the right time

I've been harvesting them every few days since then, getting a few ounces at a time. I'd like to say I'm getting better at judging when the peas inside will be big enough to be worth harvesting, but it's still pretty hit and miss. The pods get big first then the peas inside swell up to fill the space. It's not easy to tell whether that has happened or not.

We went away last weekend, and on Friday I noticed peas ready to pick that would be old by the time we got back. These were picked, cooked and frozen. Stocking up for the winter has begun!

Tuesday 19 July 2011

Store room catastrophe... and more mushrooms

I was next door having a nice cup of tea with the neighbours when Ian turned up, saying, We have a problem in the store room. The shelves have collapsed. I rushed home and this was the scene that greeted me:

Aftermath of shelving collapse

Actually, that's not quite true. The first thing I did was pick up the demijohns - thankfully not broken, in spite of having been on the top shelf - to see if anything could be salvaged of the contents, and ditto the air-locked bottles of blackcurrant wine. Ian also refused to let me mess around taking photos until I'd dealt with anything potentially explosive. If you look at the right hand edge of the above photo, you can just about see the escaped stopper of the one glass bottle of pink elderflower champagne. I also had two glass bottles of not-pink elderflower champagne, presumably equally pressurised. These were carefully removed and depressurised outdoors - they didn't seem all that explosive, actually.

So... these had been salvaged by the time I took a photo of the chaos.

Almost a demijohn-full of oak leaf wine, just over a pop bottle-full of blackcurrant wine, and two intact bottles of elderflower champagne

It could have been worse. I'm putting off dealing with the rest of the mess until I have somewhere to put things. We now have no shelves in the store room at all.

At the same time, elsewhere in the store room, I spotted these:

More mushrooms growing in the store room

This morning I went down and picked one, so I could take some better photos:

I've looked at a few websites, but I can't identify it. Any ideas?

Thursday 14 July 2011

Leftover soap

This is not a post about bits of soap that are left over from nearly using up a bar, but soap that is made from leftovers. I've been saving meat fat for some time now. I was using it for cooking to start with, then it occurred to me that it would be healthier to cook with oil and make soap with lard, rather than vice versa. I've been saving it up for a while, and the little pots are cluttering up my fridge.

Two pots of chicken fat, two of lard, and one of lamb tallow, which turned out to have lard in the bottom as well.

As you can see from the picture, whilst this stuff keeps fairly well, it's not perfect and there are little bits of mould that needed scraping out before I used this. Some of this has probably been in the fridge for well over a month.

I looked up the sap values* and found that for these three fats the values were all the same, which meant I could mix them and weigh the whole lot together, reducing the inaccuracy of weighing lots of small amounts. Having weighed that (pretty much exactly 1 lb in total), I added a bit of hemp oil (2 oz) that I still had in the kitchen, untouched since last time I made soap.

I then turned to a couple of online calculators to work out the final details of the recipe. This one has a neat little adjustment where you enter the size of the mould you're using and it resizes the recipe to fit. Using these, I added a bit of sunflower oil (1 oz) and tweaked the superfatting** adjustment to 7% so that I'd get a nice round number for the quantity of lye required (2.5 oz). Just for completeness, the amount of water in this recipe was 5.8 (a slightly generous 5 3/4) oz.

Having settled on the recipe, I put all the fats and oils in a big bowl*** and put that in the oven, which was still hot from bread-making, to melt the meat fats. While that was melting, I weighed the water into a plastic jug, carefully sprinkled the required weight of caustic soda into that, then took it outside so it could give off noxious fumes into the atmosphere rather than my kitchen.

When the fats were melted, I took them out of the oven and scooped off the small amount of scum that had floated to the top. Hmm, that could be a drawback of using saved fats. I may not have got quite all of the bits out, but still, I'd have plenty of time to fish them out while waiting for the mixture to trace.

Melted meat fats, looking an uninspiring brown colour

Being rather less nervous about the whole process the second time around, I may not have waited very long for the two liquids to cool down before mixing them together. I did, however, follow John Seymour's advice and added the lye very slowly to the fats, stirring as I did so. The fats started to change colour immediately.

What amazed me was how quickly this reached the trace**** point. I didn't time it, but it seemed barely five minutes before I saw the first signs of it, and not more than twenty at most, before it was definitely tracing. I didn't even use a blender - I was stirring with a good old-fashioned spoon. Forget your fancy Castile soaps, this is the way forward!

Somewhat less than 24 hours later (i.e. this morning), I turned the soap out of the mould and cut it into blocks.

Ten small bars of meaty soap

It was very soft when I turned it out, but it's hardening (and getting paler) with each hour. Just in case you were wondering about the smell (and I suspect you were), it smells lovely! Not at all like meat, just very soapy. Now, does anyone know how long lard soap takes to cure?


* Saponification values, that tell you how much lye to use for a given amount of fat or oil.

** The amount by which you adjust the quantity of lye in the recipe, to be on the safe side, i.e. erring on the side of a sloppy mess rather than something that'll eat through your skin.

*** Last time I used a bowl that was only just big enough to hold the oils, which made it difficult to mix without sloshing over the edge. I learnt from that mistake and used a very big bowl this time.

**** When moving a spoon through the mixture leaves a 'trace' behind in the surface. This is the sign that you can stop stirring and pour the soap into a mould.

Tuesday 12 July 2011

Blighted spuds

I'd been warned by neighbours that we're very vulnerable to potato blight here. This isn't catastrophic if you get it, provided you notice fairly quickly. If you spot it at this stage...

Early signs of blight in a potato plant. At least, the higher leaves have early signs - I'd say it was a bit more advanced in the lower leaves.

... you just dig up the spuds quick and dispose of the leaves, preferably by burning and definitely not on the compost heap. This one, on the other hand...

Much blighted spud

... may have gone a bit far - oops.

Surveying the potato patch, I saw that the telltale yellowing leaves were pretty widespread. Oh dear, I'd better get digging, then. I started off by digging only those that had signs of blight, but fairly soon realised that the number of first earlies that needed lifting was, All of them. I got that done yesterday, and one of the maincrop, just to see how it was doing. All the potatoes looked pretty healthy, even the ones from the seriously blighted plant in the photo above. Here's what I harvested:

Blight-stricken first earlies, all safely harvested, plus one King Edward's worth of spuds (those are the ones loose on the table)

I couldn't believe how many potatoes I got from that King Edward: That's two and a half pounds from just one plant! It's no wonder they're so popular with gardeners.

Having lifted all the first earlies, I was able to tot up the total harvest: I lifted just over 19 lb yesterday, making the total harvest just shy of 29 lb. The cost works out at 30p/kg, which compares favourably with around £1.35 for new potatoes from the supermarket, and I'm not even looking at the organic ones for that comparison.

I was planning to save some of them as seed potatoes for next year, and I've put aside 15 of the biggest (the seeds I bought were pretty big) for that purpose. Now I'm wondering whether that's a good idea, as I know these plants have been affected by blight. There's no sign of blight in the tubers, but could it be lurking there unseen? Will I get early and vigorous blight wiping out the whole crop if I try to grow from these?

Today I tackled the maincrop. Encouraged by the quantity I got from the King Edward I dug yesterday, I did think I'd lift the whole lot today. On the other hand, it would be nice to leave them to grow for a while longer (and not have to dig the whole lot in one day!) What I actually did was to dig up all those that had clear signs of blight, which was quite a lot of them. These were mostly in the middle of the bed, so taking them out will allow a lot more airflow around those that remain. I'm hoping this will be enough to discourage the blight from advancing too aggressively, but this is probably wishful thinking. I'll be monitoring it closely now, and may well be digging the rest of them within a week or so.

After today's digging

The next question I have to think about is storage. The first step is to let the skins harden. Common advice is to leave them out in the sun for a few days for this purpose, but I'm not sure this is such a good idea. I've noticed the skins hardening on spuds I've stored in the cupboard for a few days, so sunshine can't be critical. Also, we all know what too much sunlight does to potatoes*. In any case, dry weather can hardly be guaranteed round here.

I've left them out in the sun for a few hours to dry out, but now I'm going to bring them in, and try to figure out what to do with them next. Spreading them out somewhere dark seems like a good idea, I'm just not sure quite how to achieve it. For long-term storage, I had thought about a press, which is a big box full of sand or dry soil. However, I'm not sure I'm up to organizing one of those in the time available. I did buy a couple of hessian sacks with the seed potatoes, so I think I'll be using those instead.


* It turns them green and toxic, in case you didn't know.

Friday 8 July 2011

Apricot kernel biscuits

Health warning: Ingredients contain cyanide.

No, I'm not suggesting ways of poisoning your friends, I just felt I ought to include a disclaimer. People have died of eating too many apricot kernels, but too many is a lot more than I used in this recipe. The Straight Dope offers the following helpful advice: Ingestion of about a cupful of any of the above seeds is pushing things a bit.

Right, with that bit out of the way, where was I? Oh yes, I love apricots! Having eaten the delicious fruit, there's more yumminess to be had by cracking open the stone to get at the kernel inside.

The stones aren't the kernels. You have to crack them to get at the nuts.

They taste like bitter almonds and I think they're delicious, though I'm a little wary because of the whole cyanide business. Actually, getting at them this way, I'm unlikely to eat enough to cause me problems, but still. Rather than eating them neat, I thought they might make a nice flavouring for biscuits, so I made some plain biscuits (4 oz each of butter and sugar, 8 oz of flour and one egg yolk. I haven't decided what to do with the white, yet). Having cracked four nuts open, I mashed them up in a pestle and mortar and added them to the mix.

The biscuits are delicious, but the bitter almond flavour is undetectable. It must be there because without it I think these would taste very plain, but you wouldn't know it was there. Next time maybe I'll risk a few more than four kernels in this recipe. I'll just have to eat more apricots!

Wednesday 6 July 2011

Insect repellant is pretty effective, actually.

I made some insect repellant cream from wormwood* a little while ago.

Possibly wormwood, but more likely southernwood

I've been using it quite a lot since then, and it works. It's not 100% effective, but then I doubt anything is. Mostly, I only get bitten now when I'm going out briefly and don't bother to put any cream on. My sister has commissioned a pot for her baby because, while she doesn't mind putting nasty chemicals on her own skin, she's not too happy about doing that for a two-month old baby.


* At least, I thought it was wormwood. I'm now thinking it might actually be the closely related southernwood instead. Both have insect repellant properties, so it doesn't really matter.

Laundry gloop isn't very good

I tried making laundry gloop a while back. At the time, it seemed fine, but as I've used it more I've been less impressed by it. It's OK for things that aren't very dirty - clothes that have been worn once, mainly - but things that need a bit more elbow grease - towels that perhaps should have been washed a bit sooner, maybe - it leaves them smelling, well, much like they did before they were washed. If they're then hung on the line in the fresh air, they get that lovely fresh smell from the breeze, which I believe is ozone, but if it's raining and I have to hang them indoors, that's not so nice.

I wondered if choosing a recipe with borax in would give better results, so set about finding some borax. This turns out to be more difficult than you might think, especially if you're reading American websites. It turns out that the EU have recently classified borax as a hazardous substance, which makes it somewhat less available than it used to be. In my investigations, I got the impression that this classification is not to protect the consumer, but to protect the miners who did the stuff up, and are inhaling the dust all day every day. This is health and safety doing what it should: Protecting the workers.

It's still possible to get hold of borax, but at a much higher price, presumably to cover the cost of the extra protection for the miners (she hopes, naively). There is also 'Borax substitute' available:

Borax substitute: Sodium sesquicarbonate

I say available; it's still not that easy to get hold of. I prefer to buy from actual shops rather than online, where possible, so I trawled around town, eventually finding it in the second of the two excellent hardware shops in Aberystwyth (in the first I tried, no-one had ever heard of borax).

So, I made up a new batch of laundry gloop, using larger quantities of soda crystals as well as the new borax substitute, together with a bar of grated soap. Result: No discernible difference from the first batch. You know how lists of tips for reducing your carbon footprint often include Turn down the temperature on your washing machine. Modern detergents can cope with cooler temperatures? Well, this isn't a modern detergent.

I looked up what borax substitute actually is as I wrote this blog post and found that sodium sesquicarbonate is probably just a mixture of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) and sodium carbonate (washing soda), so it's hardly surprising that adding it doesn't improve the performance compared with plain washing soda.

I have another idea for laundry liquid that I'm going to try in the autumn, but in the meantime I've gone back to buying Persil. The clothes do smell nicer, but it's striking how artificial that freshness smells to me now.

Monday 4 July 2011

More blackcurrants than you can shake a stick at

In fact, if you shook a stick at the blackcurrants in question, you'd hear a series of little thuds as currants jumped off the bush and landed on the ground.

On Tuesday evening of last week, my neighbour came round to ask if I'd like some of her blackcurrants. She'd already harvested twenty pounds and had run out of freezer space and enthusiasm for blackcurrants. Of course I said yes.

On Wednesday afternoon I spent a pleasant, if somewhat back-aching, couple of hours picking currants in her garden. I then realised that as we were going away on Friday, I'd need to get them topped and tailed, stewed and strung up before going to bed on Wednesday so I could make things from the juice and pulp on Thursday. Furthermore, I had an idea for using the seeds (which belongs to another post) that meant I wanted to top and tail thoroughly, removing the little hard disk from behind the flower. So it was that I took a sharp knife and removed the flower (as well as anything else that needed removing) from every blackcurrant in that five-pound-plus harvest.

Topping and tailing late into the night

Actually, that's not entirely true. As it got towards two o'clock in the morning, I was getting pretty fed up with this, and got selective. I picked out the biggest, ripest currants and left the small and unripe ones. I ended up with five pounds processed, and the plus (about five ounces) left over. Stewing and stringing up didn't take long and I got to bed at about 2:30 am.

The bag kept dripping juice well into the next day, and it was early Thursday afternoon that I turned my attention to the next stage of processing. First, I added sugar to the juice to make cordial. That yielded about 750 ml, or one and half small bottles, which was a little disappointing - I'd expected at least a litre.

Next, I pushed the fruit mush through a sieve to separate the pulp from the seeds and skins. That was very hard work, especially when I put too much in the sieve at once.

Pushing pulp through a sieve

This yielded a huge quantity of pulp, lots more than the juice I'd used for the cordial. First I made ice cream with it. I had an idea that a ripple ice cream would be nice and as I had the ingredients, I went to the effort of doing it properly.

Step 1: Heat some double cream left over from birthday scones with milk to make it go a bit further (maybe 400 ml total?) and a vanilla pod that I knew I had in the back of the cupboard somewhere. Leave that gently heating and infusing for a while.
Step 2: Separate two eggs. Put the yolks in a big bowl and whisk a bit.
Step 4: Fish the vanilla pod out of the milk/cream and wash it (it can be used again). Pour the hot milk/cream onto the yolks, whisking. Put back in the pan and heat gently, still whisking, until it thickens. At some point in this process add some sugar until it looks and tastes like custard, which is what it is. Leave to cool.
Step 5: Add sugar to some pulp until it tastes about sweet enough for a ripple.
Step 6: Beat egg whites until fluffy and fold two-thirds or so into the custard. Put this in the freezer. Ideally, this should be taken out and stirred at frequent intervals as it freezes, but I couldn't figure out how to do this at the same time as adding the ripple, so I did it once or twice before...
Step 7: Fold the rest of the egg white into the blackcurrant pulp. Add this to the half-frozen vanilla ice cream and stir just a little bit. Put back in the freezer to finish freezing.

It may be rather solid, but it looks fabulous:

Blackcurrant ripple ice cream.

We haven't tried it yet, but my sister's coming to visit with her husband and baby, so I'm looking forward to sharing it with them. The baby will not be getting any ice cream.

I also made sorbet, which is much simpler. Just add water and sugar to the pulp and freeze. I did the taking-out-and-stirring-during-freezing thing with this one, so hopefully it won't be too solid. Without the egg whites, that could easily end up as a lump of ice.

After all that, I still had some pulp left over and started thinking about jam. Now, if you're making jam you'd usually use the whole fruit and if you're making jelly you'd usually use the juice and throw away the bit I had left. On the other hand, I don't really care whether my jam is cloudy or not, and this pulp must have plenty of pectin in it for setting. I put it in a pan (actually the same jamming kettle I'd stewed the fruit in the night before. It was already covered in blackcurrant juice...) with some water and quite a lot of sugar (keep adding until it tastes about as sweet as jam) and turned on the heat. I left that boiling while I did the washing up, stirring and checking from time to time (the hand towel got quite soggy). I also put some jam jars in the oven to sterilise.

When a drop dripped onto a chilled plate passed the wrinkle test (it really did - it wrinkled!) I quickly poured it into jars (easier said than done when manhandling a jamming kettle) and put the lids on. I got three jars full (two of which are small jars) and in spite of ignoring the usual procedures, I think I've got some pretty good jam:

Blackcurrant jam. Its resemblance to toffee is minimal.

The final job for these currants was to clean the seeds as best I could and spread them out on a tray to dry. I also picked out the small but ripe currants and spread those out in a basket to see if they'll dry into the kind of things you put in a Christmas cake. Now I just have to decide what to do with the rest of the currants on my own bushes, which are probably ripe and falling onto the ground by now.