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

Wednesday 20 June 2012

They're ganging up on me

Yesterday evening I went out to evict some slugs and snails.

This job is so much easier with gloves!

The trouble is, the best time to find these beasties is also the favourite hunting time of these beasties:

Photo courtesy of Harry Hogg, used with permission. This image must not be used or copied without prior permission from Harry Hogg.
My photography is nowhere near good enough to take a photo like this, so I borrowed this one. Click the image to see the original

I can't spend long outside before they eat me alive.

They're so itchy!

The itchiness woke me up at six o'clock this morning, which is a good two hours before I'd usually wake up. It's a beautiful day so I got up thinking I might go out into the garden, but the midges are just as bad in the early morning as they are in the evening. Grrr!

What I need is one of these:

Tuesday 19 June 2012

A culinary cultural exchange: Herman the German bara brith

This is my absolute final experiment with Herman the German friendship cake starter. After several cakes that came out less well than the equivalent with baking powder I was ready to give up. Then my neighbour suggested bara brith, being a traditional Welsh yeast-leavened cake, so I gave it one last go.

I looked at several recipes before settling on Delia's as a basis. I was surprised that she didn't soak the fruit in tea first, as I thought that was a defining feature of bara brith. I soaked my fruit.

I made a couple of other changes to the recipe, to accommodate the starter. I left out the milk and sugar, because both of these are in the starter, and the egg, because starter seems to have much the same effect as egg in recipes I've tried so far. Here's the recipe I used.


  • 12 oz flour, mixed wholemeal and white (I might try just white next time)
  • 2 oz butter
  • 10 fl oz friendship cake starter, having fed it the day before
  • 8 oz mixed dried fruit soaked in...
  • 400 ml strong tea (made with 2 teabags) There was quite a lot left over from this. I might try one bag in 300ml next time
  • 1/2 tsp each of salt and mixed spice


  • Make up the tea and soak the fruit. I added the fruit while the tea was still hot and left overnight, but I think half an hour would probably have been enough.
  • Mix the salt and spice into the flour, then rub in the butter.
  • Stir in the starter, then enough of the tea to make a dough and knead. I made quite a soft dough, which wasn't such a good idea in retrospect.
  • At this point I ignored the instruction to leave the dough to rise, as the starter's already had plenty of time to work on its flour and I didn't want the tough chewiness I'd found in previous cakes.
  • Mix in the fruit. I had trouble with the instruction to knead it in gradually. By the time I'd added a few spoonfuls, it had broken through the other side of the dough and was squishing all over the work surface. Mixing it in the bowl was much more successful. However, since the fruit had been soaked, it brought a lot of liquid with it and made a very sticky mixture. That said, it looked more like cake mix than bread dough, which I thought was probably no bad thing.
  • Leave to rise. Delia says 30-45 min, but mine took four hours, and it wasn't particularly cold, either. Maybe I should have given it some rising time earlier.
  • Bake. Delia says gas mark 5 for an hour. Mine took an hour and a half, and I wasn't entirely sure the middle was cooked when I'd finished, but the outside certainly was.

German friendship bara brith

When we first tried it, still warm from the oven, the centre seemed undercooked, but it turned out that that was just because of the steam from cooking. When it cooled down it was fine - just the right texture. Obviously the top was a bit burnt, probably because I didn't cover it whilst cooking, but otherwise this is very nice. I finally have a successful German friendship cake recipe, and it's Welsh!

Unfortunately, Ian still doesn't like fruit cake (though he did eat a whole slice of this to test it, so it can't be that bad), so I still haven't solved the problem of what to do with Herman. Much as I like bara brith, I'm not sure I could manage a whole loaf of it to myself, every five days. Maybe I could slow Herman down a bit. I'll tell you a secret: In spite of what the instructions say, putting Herman in the fridge doesn't kill him, it just slows him down a bit. It doesn't even slow him down all that much, in my experience, but maybe that could reduce the bara brith frequency to a rate I could keep up with.

Monday 18 June 2012

Copper wire as slug deterrent: a test

Amongst many things that are supposed to deter slugs, a strand of copper wire allegedly gives them an electric shock when they try to cross it. I was chatting to Dad yesterday and he mentioned this, suggesting that two strands might be necessary to make a circuit. Slugs are currently munching their way through our strawberries and the pots are quite hard to defend by other methods, so I thought this would be worth a go.

I took a bundle of electrical wire from the old washing machine and stripped a length, which turned out to be stranded. That should be ideal.

I took the strands out to the patio and started stringing them round the strawberry pots when I thought that it might be an idea to test the theory first. It shouldn't be too difficult - I'd just need to find a slug.

It took me about ten seconds to find this big boy hiding in some leaves...

... but he was sleepy and couldn't be persuaded to go anywhere. It didn't take much longer to find this little guy...

... who was much more sprightly. I put him on the patio in a circle of copper wire (several strands) and waited.

The first encounter with the wire was encouraging. When his antenna touched it, he withdrew and turned away.

After a couple of attempts, though, he braced himself and slid straight across.

Test result: Copper wire completely ineffective as a slug deterrent, at least against this slug.

Things living in my kitchen

And when I say Things, I mean yeast.

I have bread dough rising...

... the dandelion wine is still bubbling away merrily, and in that bowl is living Herman the German friendship cake starter.

Some friends came to visit a few weeks ago and brought me some friendship cake starter along with a finished cake. I have to say, the cake was very nice but as one of the friends said (that is, she brought me the cake and starter, he made the comment): You take some of that, mix it with all the ingredients to make a cake, then you have a cake. When I saw the recipe, I had to agree. The starter didn't seem to make a very big contribution to the finished cake. The recipe even includes baking powder, for goodness sake!

There was another problem with Herman. Although I liked the cake very much, it's a fruit cake and with the exception of applesauce cake*, Ian doesn't like fruit in cakes. Luckily, there are lots of recipes available to use with Herman (all including baking powder, which I refuse to use in a yeast cake recipe) so I had plenty of scope for trying alternatives.

Before I could get near baking a cake, though, I had to follow the instructions for nurturing Herman. Although I'm not used to measuring dry ingredients by volume, I do have an American cup measure, so I used that to measure out the first feed, and was struck by just how much flour, sugar and milk I was putting in. This is one hungry cake! Of course, with the increased volume he quickly escaped the one-litre pot I had him in. I decided that these quantities were ridiculous (the cake our friends brought was huge, too) so scaled down to my smallest cup, which is 5 fl oz, as opposed to the American 8 fl oz cups. Even with reduced quantities, he escapes fairly often. After I took the picture above, I stirred and took another photo so you can see just how much of that volume is air.

Herman takes up far less space when the air is stirred out.

My first experiment in cooking with Herman was scones. I reasoned that these are pretty close to bread anyway, but enriched with milk and sugar, so should work quite well with the starter. I was wrong. The result wasn't at all like a crumbly scone, but rather chewy. Scone fail.

I continued feeding Herman at appropriate intervals, but instead of the standard ten day cycle which ends up four portions, I baked every four or five days, using half the mixture each time. Remembering my mother's experience with German friendship cake when I was a child, you can very quickly run out of friends if you give portions away every ten days!

My next experiment was chocolate cup cakes, which were quite good but a bit on the tough side. A similar result came from plain cup cakes - OK, but a bit chewy and not as nice as my usual recipe. I finally tried applesauce cake, as the only fruit cake Ian likes, and hopefully fairly close to the standard Herman recipe.

Attempt at applesauce cake.

Notice how the edges look ragged? Well I might not have greased the lining paper as well as it needed, but I have never met a cake that hung onto its paper so determinedly. Notice also how the middle looks rather dense? Well after one hour the cake had risen and a skewer came out clean, but it quickly fell back flat. Maybe if I'd cooked it for a lot longer it would have been OK, but this cake was seriously indigestible. To salvage the ingredients I mashed up the stodgy middle bit, added an egg (I only had one), some milk and a teaspoonful of bicarb, and cooked as cupcakes. These also got about an hour cooking (I tested after 20 min, they weren't done, then I spotted my neighbour in her garden and went over for a chat...) and looked very brown, but were quite nice.

At this point I'd had enough of Herman. My neighbour had expressed an interest, so I went over (yes, whilst cooking cup cakes) and asked if she'd like some starter, adding, In fact, would you like all of it, and do you know what you're letting yourself in for? Once I'd explained what German friendship cake involves, she decided she didn't want any after all. However, she did suggest bara brith as a likely recipe. This is a traditional Welsh cake - well, sweetish bread - with dried fruit. I'd only seen recipes with baking powder, but she had a traditional one using yeast. This isn't going to be the recipe that make German friendship cake suitable for Ian, but I like bara brith a lot, so I was persuaded to give Herman one more go.

As I type, there is a tin of bara brith mixture failing to rise in the kitchen. It's not a promising start...


* This may seem odd to readers in America, but this style of cake isn't widely known over here. My sister told me about it, and she heard from a friend of hers who's married an American and moved to the States.

Wednesday 13 June 2012

After the rain

This is rather old news, as it's nearly a week since we had a month's rain in 24 hours, but still...

When Rain in Wales makes the ten o'clock news, you know there's been a lot of rain.

Up here in the mountains, things weren't too bad. The stream running through next door's garden (and alongside ours) got a bit torrential...

This stream usually comes under the bridge as a gently babbling brook

... and I made a small dam on the driveway to direct the water into the drainage pipe.

This may not look like it's making much difference, but it reduced the ruts in the gravel a bit.

On Friday afternoon we went out to meet some friends but didn't get far before we met this:

There was quite a lot of wind as well as rain, the combination of which brought this tree down.

Actually that's sometime after we met it and the road is almost open again by this time. When we had to stop, we got out of the car and went to see if we could help move the tree. The only other people standing around turned out to have been in their car when the tree came down on top of them. It landed on their bonnet (what's that in American? It's the front bit) and their momentum kept them going right through the falling tree before they could stop. Although the car was undriveable and the windscreen was smashed (but still mostly in place), the people were completely unharmed, apart from the shock. Really quite remarkable.

We couldn't move the tree intact, so we broke off what we could and tidied up small bits while someone with a Land Rover and tow rope came and pulled the tree round, until the rope snapped. No-one had a chainsaw with them, but somebody did have a disc cutter, which he used on the larger branches. When most of those had been moved, the Land Rover drove through the remaining small branches to break them off, which is what you see in the photo. At about this point someone said, Has anyone called the police? Well, I hadn't thought to. A few minutes later we heard sirens, so someone obviously had. By that time we'd just about got the road open again, though the police car managed to park in the most unhelpful place and blocked the traffic again. We left as the fire service turned up to finish clearing the tree away. By this time we were soaked, so we abandoned our journey and went home to change.

We ventured out again later and the journey was far less eventful, at least on the way out. It continued to rain heavily all evening and the journey back was frankly terrifying. There was a lot of standing water on the roads and hitting a very large puddle at 40 mph in the dark is no fun at all. Luckily we made it home, because it wasn't long before that road was completely closed.

When things had all calmed down the next day we went out again to have a look at the floods. As we approached Aberystwyth we could see a lot of water in the valley...

... and from closer to town we could see what had happened to the caravan park near the river.

We didn't go down into the town, but I've pinched this picture that a friend posted on facebook (cheers, Sarah ;)

Not many people at the supermarket today

After that we went inland, over the mountain road, to see the reservoir dams. We didn't get that far, though, because on the way we met this:

Range Rover stuck in landslide.

OK, we'd ignored the Road closed signs too, but when we got to a landslide we stopped and had a look at it before deciding whether to drive through it or not (not). We spent some time helping to dig them out, then someone turned up in a Land Rover with a tow rope (not the same person as the one who helped with the tree) who by some very skillful driving managed to pull them out. On the way back we stopped to chat with some locals (spotted earlier with a shovel, clearing a smaller slippage) and had a good laugh about tourists who think they can drive through anything if they have a good enough vehicle.

For those of us high and dry in the mountains it was all rather exciting. Would it be very wrong to feel pleased that I got my leeks in just before the rain?