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

Sunday 29 July 2012

Mystery plant still a mystery

This is hogweed:

Common hogweed by the roadside

Since investigating the mystery plant in my garden, I've learnt to recognise hogweed and spotted lots of the common kind growing by the roadside near here. As well as being able to harvest it next year, it should also help with identifying my mystery plant. I was fairly sure it was hogweed, but couldn't tell whether it's giant or common. One feature that would help would be the flowers. Both have umbrella type flowers, but the shape differs, so if I examine the flowers of my mystery plant carefully and compare it with those by the roadside, maybe I can tell whether it's giant hogweed or not.

My mystery plant is now flowering. Here it is:

Mystery plant

Let's take a close look at one of those flower heads:

Mystery plant flower head

Hmm, that would appear to be not hogweed. It's not even an umbellifer! Right, back to square one, then. Any ideas on ID of a plant that has leaves like giant hogweed and flowers like round teasels? It's currently about five feet tall.

Slug trap update

This is what I found when I went out to check the slug traps this morning:

Note the complete absence of slugs in the trap. Note the trail of slime up the inside of the trap. Note the happy slug sitting outside the trap, contentedly drinking the beer that is drawn up the trail of slime.

Saturday 28 July 2012

Beer traps for slugs: a test

After hunting down and evicting around two hundred slugs over the course of three evenings, I was starting to wonder if simply throwing them over the railway line wasn't enough. Are they just coming back? Maybe it's time to get tough.

I'm reluctant to waste good beer on slugs, but I've heard that it's the yeast they really like, not the beer as such. I kept the yeasty sludge from a batch of homebrew (kit beer), added sugar and water, and used that to bait a few jam jars, which I then buried in the soil yesterday evening.

This morning I went out eagerly to check my traps and... not a sausage! Nor a slug, which might look quite similar to a sausage, but should not be confused. I wasn't entirely surprised by the total failure, as I'd spotted this little fellow last night checking out one of the traps and deciding it wasn't worth the risk:

The slugs round here aren't as daft as they look.

Thursday 26 July 2012

Solar dehydrator - Mark 1

I picked a second harvest of blackcurrants the other day. I got three and half pounds and my neighbour got a couple of pounds as well, and there are still more ripening on the bush - it's a good year for blackcurrants. I stewed mine with a little water and strained the juice overnight to make cordial (with sugar added to taste, made about a litre). I then squeezed the bag to get more juice out - the murkier pressing - and made sorbet out of that (dilute and add sugar to taste. Freeze, but take out and stir at intervals. It still needs warming a bit before it's soft enough to serve, but if you don't stir it you just get an ice lolly, which is another option).

Finally, I pressed the remaining sludge through a sieve, leaving behind just the pips and skins, and sludge that I hadn't the energy to push through (this is very hard work). Again adding sugar to taste, this thick sludge can be dried to make fruit leather. As blackcurrants have a very strong flavour, I would have preferred to mix them with something bland like haws, but they're not ripe yet. I think I can live with intensely flavoured fruity snacks. Thick sludge was duly spread out in thin layers on baking sheets.

When I've made fruit leather before, I've dried it in the oven. As we have the novelty of actual sunshine here at the moment - and it's hot! Getting on for 30°C! (OK I know that's pretty cool by American standards, but it's unheard of in Wales) - I thought I'd try the sun dried approach. I started by laying the trays out on the garden table, which is perforated metal, so good for warm air flow around the trays. To increase the chances of actual drying happening, and because I've been thinking about solar dehydrators recently, I decided to construct such a device to help things along.

So... solar dehydrator step 1: Choose something dark coloured and non-insulating to serve as a collector. This is the bit that heats up when it sits in the sun. I picked roof slates as we have lots sitting around. The rigidity is handy, as they need propping up at a suitable angle to face the sun. I used bits of old brick for this, as we also have a lot of these sitting around.

Slates propped up on bits of brick. High tech stuff, this.

The next step is to set up a sheet of glass or plastic over the collector to make a little greenhouse. There should be a gap between the two to allow air to flow from the bottom to the top. I had a broken piece of greenhouse glass to hand, and found a bit of car in the garage (it wasn't attached to a car at the time, I promise!) that looked good for a spacer/ seal for the sides.

Glass resting on piece of rubber. This also keeps the glass off the ground, allowing air to get in at the bottom.

Once I'd set up my collector, I just needed some way of directing the air from the top of it towards the table with the trays of fruit sludge. I also thought that protecting the fruit from flies might be a good idea. I took the fabric part of a tent (yes, that was just lying around, too) and draped it round the table and collector, with the insect net supported by some garden wire (which was tidily put away in the greenhouse). I'm not sure I did a very good job of this.

There are three trays of fruit pulp in there somewhere

The idea was to catch the hot air emerging from the top of the collector and send it in the direction of the table. I did want to take the temperature of various parts of the set-up but the only thermometer I could find (pinched from the central heating system) was very slow to react, and we were going out, so I just left it.

Several hours later...


We have actual, dried fruit leather. I didn't really believe it would work. Of course, if I was being scientific about it, I'd have left one tray out in the open as a control condition, to see whether my roof-slate-and-tent setup made any difference at all, but I didn't. I just wanted to give my fruit the best chance of drying, so now I have no idea whether this works as a dehydrator, but I do have a tin full of blackcurrant fruit leather stashed away for the winter.

Monday 16 July 2012

Seasonal weather forecasting

I love the old sayings and legends that tell us how the weather's going to be for the next few months based on recent weather or other natural signs. I learnt a new one last autumn from a bloke in the pub: If we get three nights of hard frost before the fair comes to Aberystwyth, then it'll be a mild winter. I love the local nature of this one, and the fact that the fair is sufficiently fixed in the calendar (late November) to have been incorporated into a weather prediction. We did have three nights of hard frost last November and sure enough, the winter was mild.

At the opposite extreme, being about as non-local as you can get, is the old Imbolc legend that the hag gathers firewood for the rest of the winter on this day (1st or 2nd Feb) so if she's planning a long winter she'll make the day bright and clear - good weather for collecting wood. This is pretty much the same prediction as groundhog day, 2nd Feb: If the cute furry animal can see his shadow, he'll retreat into his burrow, expecting another six weeks of winter. The first three days of February were bright and clear this year, but I can't say the following six weeks were particularly harsh. We did have a cold snap in the middle of that period, but it was generally fairly mild.

There's a little rhyme I've known since I was a child, about when different trees come into leaf:

If oak be out before the ash, then the earth will get a splash;
If ash be out before the oak, then you may expect a soak.

I confess I didn't notice when these trees came into leaf this year until they were both out, so I can definitively say which came first but I think it was roughly the same time. The ash certainly didn't lead by enough to hint at the deluge we've had this summer.

Yesterday was St Swithin's day, which traditionally predicts the rain for the next forty days: If it rains on St Swithin's it will keep raining, but if it's dry it will stay dry. In spite of all the rain we've had recently, yesterday was dry... but today isn't.

So much for St Swithin.

Things that go bump in the night

We were woken up at 3:30 this morning by an explosion. One of the bottles of elderflower champagne had gone off with a bang. Ian kicked me out of bed to go and depressurise the rest. Unfortunately, there was one bottle that I couldn't do anything about - the glass cider bottle. That one went bang at 8:00 this morning.

As you see, home brew is taking over my kitchen.
I really need the store room back in action.

You'd think the cap would have blown off before the bottle exploded, wouldn't you? Well, I did. Here's the windowsill on the other side of the room, about ten feet away:

Little bits of glass on the windowsill

There were tiny fragments like that all over the kitchen. I haven't finished cleaning up yet - I felt the need for a cup of tea.

Lesson: Don't put elderflower champagne in glass bottles, even if they did contain fizzy drinks before. You'd think I'd have learnt that by now, wouldn't you?

Friday 13 July 2012

Nice weather for blackcurrants

All this rain has to be good for something and I'm pleased to report that I've found one very positive result. Earlier in the year - 17th April according to the date of the photo - I had noticed bees buzzing around the blackcurrant flowers...

... and now their hard work has borne fruit, literally.

There are huge blackcurrants

... growing in great abundance.

Even better, we had a few hours of sunshine the other day, enabling me to get out and pick a goodly harvest. I'd forgotten quite how many uses I'd found for blackcurrants last year. What I hadn't forgotten, though, was how good the wine was. There's still some of the jam left, the fruit cheese didn't keep well, I don't feel like ice cream in this weather, but that wine is now a fond and distant memory.

I didn't have very much of that wine after the great store room shelf collapse, but what there was I enjoyed very much. I can't remember how long I left it to mature - obviously not as much as a year - I think it was about six months, but that was enough. It didn't taste much like normal wine, i.e. wine made from grapes - funnily enough, it tasted of blackcurrants. Once I'd got used to the not-wine flavour and started to appreciate it for what it was, this wine went firmly on the More of that next year list.

I was pleased to find that I'd made fairly good notes on how I made the wine last year. My first colander-full of currants weighed 2 lb 10 oz, almost exactly the amount I used last year, and there were plenty more on the bushes. I went out to get a second colander full and ended up with 5 lb 11 oz - enough for two gallons of wine.

I picked the currants over to remove caterpillars, spiders and snail poo, but didn't bother topping and tailing them. They went into one of the nice new* buckets I bought from Jed at Aberystwyth Recycling Centre.

This is what nearly 6 lb of currants looks like in a 10 litre bucket.

If you start with elderflower champagne, as I did, you might be surprised to find out quite how much fruit you need for red wine, but trust me, it's worth it. On top of the fruit I added a kettleful of boiling water, hoping that would be enough to kill off any mould spores that had got in (some of the currants were mouldy on the bush, due to the wet weather. I didn't pick any of those, obviously, but some of the nearby ones may have had a dusting of spores). I then stirred in 2 kilos of sugar, mashed it all up with a potato masher, and topped up the bucket to nearly full. Finally I added some yeast from the bottom of a bottle of elderflower champagne that's still very much alive.

I thought it was a 10 litre bucket as it has 10L moulded into the bottom, but looking at the website now I see it says they're 12.5 litres. Oh well, if I've made more than two gallons (bearing in mind I'll lose some volume when I strain it off the fruit) then I'll have slightly lighter wine and extra bottle or two of it. It all went into the bucket on Wednesday, so I'll leave it until Sunday before straining into demijohns.

Just a note on the elderflower champagne, as I've mentioned it a couple of times. Last year I enthusiastically made lots of this, planning to keep some through to Christmas, at least. I also gave some away as wedding presents, which didn't go terribly well: Even after depressurising, one bottle exploded en route, making a sticky mess of the gift bag, hand made labels and card (sorry Tim and Sarah). Lesson: Just because a bottle looks like it's designed to take the pressure, don't assume it actually will!

I also found that I didn't like this drink so much as it aged. I really like it fresh and sweet, before all the sugar's been turned to alcohol. I've decided that this is a summer drink, and I'll make and drink it in summer. By Christmas time, the sloe wine is much more to my taste, anyway.


* When I say new, I mean second hand. They come from Rachel's Dairy and these ones smell of strawberry and rhubarb conserve, even after lots of washing up. There are worse things to smell of.

Wednesday 4 July 2012

666: The number of Herman the Danish pastry

I've found a recipe that's persuaded me to keep Herman a while longer. The Bara Brith was good, but not a deal breaker. A week or so ago I quite fancied some pastries and looking through recipes, learnt that Danish pastries are made with a yeast dough. That could be a winner.

I've now made these a couple of times. The first time I made pastry as for croissants, with all the folding and turning that involves. I probably didn't keep the dough cool enough, and maybe handled it too much, but there was no detectable flakiness in the end result. The second time I did it the easy way, with grated butter, and the result was better, if anything (though there were other variables). Here is the recipe:

For the dough
  • 6 oz plain flour
  • 6 oz butter
  • 6 tblsp friendship cake starter
(OK it could be any number three times over, but I happened to use six of each)

For the filling

Whatever you like, really. I brushed the dough with beaten egg and sprinkled on some crushed almonds and pistachio nuts mixed with demerara sugar - not very much of any of those.


Put the butter in the freezer for about half an hour before you start. Grate the butter into the flour. If you dip the butter into the flour this is easier. Mix in the starter using a cutting motion then bring the dough together with your hands, but try not to handle it too much. Put the dough in the fridge for half an hour or so.

I followed Delia's advice to let it come back to room temperature before rolling, but I'm not sure that's necessary. I notice she doesn't include it in the online recipe. Here we are, all ready to go:

Getting ready to make Danish pastries

There's the pastry in the black tub, beaten egg, nut and sugar mixture, lots of flour for rolling, rolling pin and, though you can't see it in the photo, between those two little handles is a cheese wire (of the kind that's ineffective against slugs) for cutting the pastries.

Here's the pastry rolled out into a big square...

... and here it is rolled up and sliced with the cheese wire.

I still had to cut the last bit with a knife, but the cheese wire made the whole business a lot less squashy.

I accidentally deleted the photo in between that showed you just how little filling I spread on this, so you'll just have to take my word for it that it wasn't very much. It was quite a lot less than the pot full in the top photo because I saved some to sprinkle on top, stuck down with more of the beaten egg.

Here they are all laid out on baking trays.

Leave to rise for half an hour. Actually, I'm not convinced that they did rise during that time. Maybe it's because they were rolled up. I wonder if it might be a better idea to leave the pastry to rise before rolling it up? Anyway, cook at gas mark 6/200C/400F for not very long. About 15 min I think, or maybe not that long. You could probably get away with having the oven a little cooler too, whatever Delia says, but then you'd have to leave them a little longer. Take out when they smell cooked.

As you can see, the second trayful may have been cooked for slightly longer than strictly necessary, but they were still delicious.

More sourdough

One of my experiments with Herman the German friendship cake starter was an attempt to convert some of it to sourdough starter for bread. I extracted a small amount, mixed with a little bread dough and some water, then "refreshed" it (discard some and feed with flour and water) at intervals. It didn't look nearly as lively as its parent, kept separating, and tasted very, very sour - so much so that I didn't want to bake with it. After a week or so I gave up and threw it away.

In response to my questions about this on the 'ish forum, the lovely SusieGee offered me some of her sourdough starter. Just over a week ago I took her up on that offer and she not only gave me a pot of gloop, but very kindly photocopied extensive information on how to look after and cook with the starter.

The first thing I noticed about the gloop was that it was sluggish (compared with Herman), separating, and very sour. So that's normal for sourdough starter - I probably needn't have thrown out my first attempt, then. I have to admit to skimming off the clear, sour liquid that keeps rising to the top. I don't care how many experts tell me it's fine, just stir it in - I do not want that much alcohol/vinegar in my bread, thank you.

My next confession is that I looked at all the instructions and thought, No. Apparently cooking a sourdough loaf requires 6-8 hours of kneading, rising and knocking back at frequent intervals. I've heard people rave about how nice sourdough bread is. If that's what it takes to make it, I'm sure the result has far more to do with the rising and kneading than with the type of yeast that's used.

I'm not interested in perfecting a gourmet loaf - fresh baked bread is pretty good to start with - I just like the idea of keeping a yeast culture alive rather than having to buy fresh all the time. I decided to use much the same method as I usually use for slow-rise bread, just substituting sourdough starter for the yeast:

To one pound of flour add a teaspoon of salt, about 5 fl oz (one small cup) of starter and enough water to make a fairly wet dough. Mix thoroughly and leave overnight (I do this bit just before going to bed). At the same time, feed the starter with roughly equal quantities of flour and water to replace what you've taken out, plus a little more because the yeast does consume its food. Next morning, knead in a bit more flour, put into a loaf tin and leave for a couple of hours to rise. In fact, it rose so quickly that I knocked it back after one hour and gave it another hour to rise again. Cook at gas mark 6 (200 C; 400 F) for about 45 min.

I tried wholemeal bread first, thinking the stronger flavour of the flour would help disguise any sourness. The result was a revelation!

Wholemeal sourdough bread

The loaf rose much more than it usually does with fresh yeast and the texture was lighter and softer, which I guess is what you'd expect with more rising. There was a slightly sour tang, but we both liked it. A second wholemeal loaf was just as good, and today I tried white.

White sourdough bread. How boring are my bread photos?!

This wasn't as dramatically different from my usual white bread, because that usually rises more than the wholemeal. I didn't notice much of a sour taste, either. Maybe I'm just getting used to it or maybe, with a couple of refreshes and repeated skimming, the starter is getting less sour. Either way, this is excellent bread.

In other sourdough news, I think I've found the killer app for Herman...

Tuesday 3 July 2012

Realizing Dad was right

Back in my old life, I had the persistent, nagging feeling of not being able to keep up with my own life. For the first year or so after moving, that feeling left me, but it's back. When I think about it, it's been back since the installation of the new heating (that link gives the most recent post first. Scroll down if you want to read the whole saga).

That project nearly killed me, and it isn't finished yet. After the ridiculously intensive work of replacing all the floors in the house and the joy of finally having our new heating installed and working, we still had the job of insulating under the floors. Since the heating was connected up from below, the insulation had to be added after that, and from below. I really struggled with that job (I'll tell you about it someday) and when I got back from helping Dad with his house in Cornwall, I just couldn't face it any more. It still isn't finished.

As well as the insulation, I still have the solar panels to do before the heating project's finished. These have been hanging over me, making me feel guilty about doing other things. We've also had crazy/miserable weather this year (I expect you have, too) which has made gardening less attractive, so I've been feeling guilty about not doing that as well. The end result is that I sit around feeling guilty and don't get anything done.

I've always found to-do lists oppressive, with the items I haven't crossed off hanging around for months and making me feel guilty. Since I'm already feeling so guilty, and with so many things filling my head, I felt the need to write it all down, if only to show Ian why I'm feeling so stressed. I did this last week and now I'm going to show you as well.
  1. String up peas
  2. sow more peas, and beans, and replacement carrots, and fennel, and broccoli
  3. plant out French beans
  4. pot on tomatoes
  5. clear ash out of tapped bucket (missing trowel) and start making comfrey tea
  6. improve slug defences for brassicas and strawberries
  7. inspect and register septic tank
  8. unblock kitchen drain
  9. arrange book club meeting (choose book)
  10. finish camera bag (find suitable washers)
  11. seal bathroom floor
  12. paint kitchen cupboard doors
  13. add decoration to kitchen cupboards
  14. clear, level and lay kitchen floor
  15. ditto hall floor (edging strips)
  16. brick arch over fireplace (get more bricks)
  17. strip rest of wallpaper
  18. plaster around fireplace
  19. remove radiator
  20. paint sitting room walls
  21. empty room, lift carpet, sand and polish floor
  22. clean up beam
  23. make and install solar panels
  24. finish insulation and ceiling in store room
  25. loft insulation
  26. rig up doorbell
  27. put cupboards/shelves in store room
  28. renovate boots
  29. harvest oak leaves; make cordial and wine (get more buckets)
  30. ditto elderflowers
  31. sorrel cordial?
  32. pull up rest of horsetail for plant food/blight treatment
  33. paint dresser
  34. finish making laundry basket
  35. mend laundry bag
  36. mend trousers and skirts (mine and Ian’s)
  37. make new woodstore roof
  38. weave bench seat from leylandii offcuts
  39. treat wooden chairs for outdoor use
  40. put extra shelf in airing cupboard
  41. finish plastic bag sandals
  42. take lavender cuttings
  43. replace tent poles
  44. clear out fridge
  45. book musician for September
  46. ?confirm booking for October (enquire about other buildings)
  47. book musician for November
  48. rewrite music website in nice tidy code
  49. tidy up archive
  50. publicity for July music
  51. collect wild garlic seeds when ready and sow
  52. ditto pak choi, cabbage, probably onion and parsnip too
  53. write blog posts
  54. find out about greenhouse for sale; ?dismantle, move and assemble
  55. make press for sawdust briquettes
  56. make solar dehydrator
  57. get sawdust; make briquettes
  58. fix spare room skirting boards
  59. bedroom ceiling
  60. fix cornices
  61. paint wardrobe
  62. fix wardrobe
  63. strip/paint bedroom walls
  64. fix kitchen cupboard door
  65. learn Welsh
  66. plan and prepare dinner EVERY DAY
  67. WASH UP!
The immediate result of me writing the list was my own reaction: I can't do all that! This is what Dad said to me last year when I was worrying about the garden: You don't have to do everything all at once. He was right, of course.

I have decided to give myself a break over the garden. The weather's lousy this year and the slugs are rampant, so maybe I should just accept that this is going to be a bad year for gardening. Then I can stop worrying about it and focus on the house instead. In terms of saving money, getting the solar panels and insulation done will probably be worth more than growing veggies, anyway.

Having decided not to worry about the garden, I then found it a lot easier to focus on other jobs (helped by Ian's desire to get those jobs done). The kitchen is looking a lot better than in was when I wrote that list, even though I didn't quite manage to get the floor laid before the in-laws came to visit.