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

Thursday 31 January 2013

Foraging challenge

I'm a little wary of blogging challenges, but I spotted one that appeals to me: A one-food-a-week foraging challenge. The idea is to eat a different foraged food each week.

I first saw this about a year ago on a blog - can't find it now - which started off with much enthusiasm for a few weeks, then fizzled out. I thought it quite likely that I'd do the same, so I made notes of forageable plants throughout last year to see whether I'd be in with a reasonable chance of completing the challenge this year. I didn't get 52, but I wrote down enough to convince me the challenge is do-able, and the list will give me a head start, too.

Note that this challenge is about eating something different each week. I'll allow myself stored foods provided that I told you about them at the time of harvesting. You'll notice also that I'm not starting this on 1st Jan. I think January could be a tough month for harvesting, so I'll leave that to the end of the challenge and hope to have enough preserved food by then to see me through. In any case, I think January's a lousy month for starting the year; the beginning of February feels much more like the start of the year to me.

When I say something different what does that mean? Well since this is my challenge, I'll make my own rules. Different parts of the same plant count as different foods, e.g. dandelion leaves are different from dandelion flowers, but different uses of the same part just count as one, e.g. dandelion flower fritters and dandelion flower wine count as the same wild food. The foods I gather will probably be mostly plants, but might include other things too. I hope I'll be able to find some mushrooms, but I'm not sure how to go about looking for them. Since I live near the sea, I'd also like to try shellfish, and seaweed too, come to that. I doubt I'll include anything capable of running away, though.

Ideally I'd like this to be local food, i.e. found within a few miles of my home. However, I do visit people in other parts of the UK and sometimes there's good foraging to be had in those places (e.g. I picked sloes when I visited my sister in Sussex last autumn because there weren't any around here). I've decided to allow foraging in foreign parts within this challenge.

I think that's about the size of it. I'll post each week, on Fridays for the sake of alliteration, with a description of the food I'm eating that week, where and when I harvested it, and how I prepared it for eating. This means that for preserved foods I'll be telling you how to preserve them at a time when the information is completely useless. You'll just have to take note for next year! I'll also include a list of anything else I'm harvesting and/or eating from the wild that week and because the boundary between wild and cultivated foods can get a bit blurred, especially in my garden, I'll include all garden-grown foods in that list.

Oh yes, one more thing: It would be really nice if people could suggest things that are in season that I might try the following week. Hopefully suggestions in the comments will become part of this series of posts.

I'll maintain a separate page with a summary of the rules of the game and a list of links to all the posts, so everything will be in one place. Since the 1st of February happens to be a Friday, I'll start tomorrow, and put up the summary page at the same time.

Wednesday 30 January 2013


Two years ago I made far too much marmalade so last year I didn't make any. Last year was generally rubbish. This year I have made marmalade, even though I still have a few jars left of the two-year old batch.

2lb seville oranges, 2 lemons, one rather ancient sweet orange and one almost-as-ancient clementine from the fruit bowl, skin of one pink grapefruit left over from two breakfasts (2 2/3 lb in total) and 8 pints of water

I picked a day when Ian was out so I could use the dining table (his desk) to chop all the fruit, then left it and the pips to soak overnight, separately. This morning I boiled the fruit for a couple of hours then realised I'd forgotten to boil the pips. Oops! I tied the pips up in muslin and put this parcel with some of the liquid from the fruit, plus a bit more water, in a small pan and boiled vigorously for about twenty minutes in the hope of releasing the pectin that way. Once the package was just about cool enough to handle, I squeezed much slimy gloop from it into the big pan. Extracting pectin is not the most pleasant of tasks.

I then had the usual problem guessing how much sugar to put in. Grandma's recipe requires weighing the boiled fruit and water mixture, which isn't very practical. Modern recipes tend to include lemon juice but not the rind, which skews the calculations a bit. I ended up consulting my blog entry of two years ago, and guessing a bit, to end up with 5 1/2 lb sugar.

That boiled fairly rapidly (large burner on full whack) for about an hour, tested at intervals with the chilled plate, as per grandma's instructions. In the meantime I rounded up some jam jars, cleaned them and put them in the oven on its lowest setting to dry and warm. Once the drips on the cold plate showed some sign of wrinkling when poked, I ladled all the marmalade into the warmed jars and screwed on the lids.

Thirteen jars of marmalade

This smells divine during the preparation and I like the fact that Grandma's method stretches this out over two days. January just isn't right without marmalade-making.

Thursday 24 January 2013

The gardening year starts here

After giving up on the garden last year, I'm feeling considerably out of touch with it, so need to ease myself back in gently. I've made a start by buying seed potatoes and putting them to chit.

Seed potatoes, various.

This wasn't a very well thought-out selection as I just popped into the shop to see whether they had any in yet, and they did, so I bought some. There are 30 Desiree, which we've grown before and like, though they may not be very exciting. I got a few King Edwards, which we don't like so much, but they did give a very good yield when I grew them a few years ago. Then there are even fewer Charlotte salad potatoes, which I like but Ian doesn't, and a couple of different varieties of first earlies, neither of whose names I recognised. I've put the labels under the trays so I know which is which, but how I'm going to keep track of the different varieties once they're in the ground, I don't know.

The next garden job is sowing the allium seeds that I should have sowed at the end of December. They might catch up, you never know. I could do with clearing some brambles, too, but perhaps not right now.

Snowy garden

Monday 21 January 2013

Peas in our time?

The time in question being the middle of winter.

At about the time I was accepting that I couldn't manage the garden last summer, I stuck a few peas in a pot. Even if I hadn't planted enough for a proper crop, maybe a few late peas in a pot could be brought indoors when the weather got cold, and perhaps produce a small bonus crop in the winter.

Sure enough, the peas came up. I moved the pot into the conservatory when frosts threatened and I even watered it occasionally. In due course, they produced flowers and even a few pods.

Peas in the conservatory. That's freecycled insulation in the background.

Unfortunately, that's as far as they got. Today I gave up waiting for those pods to fatten up and picked a handful.

This is about as good as it got

I'm not sure whether it was the cold, lack of light, lack of water, or insufficient nutrients in the soil, but the answer would seem to be no, we cannot have peas in our time.

Friday 18 January 2013

Not my fantasy

I'm well aware that I'm living the dream and that quite a few people reading this blog would love to do what I've done - pack in the day job, move to some idyllic place and live off the land (OK, we're not quite doing that, but serious veg gardening is part of the plan). The thing is, this isn't my dream.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining about my life. I'm not trying to say that I have other dreams that I'll pursue someday, either. What I'm trying to say is that I don't get through life by having a grand vision and following it.

You've probably seen wise words advising you to hang on to your dreams, to imagine yourself living your ideal life, not to give up and if you wish hard enough... one day your dreams will come true! OK, wish hard enough is never the way it's expressed, but that's basically the message. That is not how I got to "live the dream".

Unlike many people, I have never fantasised about living the good life. I never pictured myself living in a pretty cottage in the country, with roses round the door and runner beans growing in neat rows, popping out to feed the chickens before shutting them safely in for the night (always chickens - why does this vision always include chickens?) That was not my dream. This may be partly because the first house I bought was in fact a 400 year-old ironstone* cottage with roses round the door. Come to think of it, the roses weren't there until I planted them, but I digress.

Apart from actually living in the kind of house many people spend their lives working towards, there's another reason I didn't dream about the good life: I just don't operate that way. I've always considered it a bit unfair to ask children what they want to be when they grow up - how should they know**? When I was old enough to think it through, I concluded that it's only necessary to think about three years ahead, as far as the next stage. I changed schools at 16, spent two years doing A levels, then three years doing my first degree, three years PhD, four years postdoc, four years lecturer, three years research manager, then here. For all my adult life, about three years has been as far as I needed to look ahead. I hope I'll stay here much longer than that, but I don't really need to look very far into the future - it's enough to say I'm happy to stay put for the time being.

My approach to life is to see what it has to offer at the current time, see how I feel about the oportunities available, and make decisions on that basis. Although I felt that an academic career was the life for me, when my husband got offered his dream job in a part of the country where I was unlikely to get an academic job I wanted, I considered other alternatives. By being open-minded, I got a very interesting job outside of the university system and learnt a lot about politics. I'm very glad to leave it behind, but it was and interesting and valuable life experience. That break from academia made it much easier to consider giving up work entirely, which was the most difficult decision I made in moving here.

Another major factor in making it easier to move here was being in a strong position financially. Even there, I didn't dream of giving up work and therefore save up so I could. I just had a generally frugal approach to life and made decisions that strengthened my finances. For example, when we moved away from the pretty cottage, we chose a cheaper, ex-council house so that we could pay off the mortgage. That goes against conventional 'wisdom' that you always buy the most expensive place you can so as to climb the property ladder. Of course, inheriting one-third of a house helped, too.

What prompted us to move was dissatisfaction with our current jobs. Both of us were getting fed up with our respective employers, so considered what else we might like to do. For Ian, that was relatively straightforward. Having been employed as a journalist for several years, he'd built up enough experience and contacts to go freelance without imminent danger of starvation. I didn't have the working from home option, so spent some time observing myself and considering the question, "What do I really enjoy doing?" The answer came most clearly when making elderflower champagne: I really enjoy harvesting things and making them into something delicious. (I also noted computer programming - I didn't expect to end up writing a music promotion website.)

I'm not trying to tell you how to live your life, just how I live mine, but if you want to take a message from this, don't dwell on dreams of how wonderful things might be in the distant future. There's even some evidence to suggest that this might make you less likely to pursue them. Instead, look at where you are now - what you enjoy, what your opportunities are - and decide what to do with your life now. After all, now is all we've really got.


*like the honey-coloured Cotswold stone, but more iron ore so a deeper shade of orange **Notwithstanding the fact that my sister did, in fact, know, and in spite of Grandma's dismissive, "Oh they all do at that age, don't they?" she is now a fully qualified, practising vet.

Sunday 6 January 2013

New Shoes!

This may not seem like a promising subject for a blog on self-sufficiency, but bear with me. Since changing my lifestyle, I've found that my attitude to things I buy has also changed. For a start, I buy things far less often, so each purchase is more of a big deal, which in itself tends to make me think about it more. But it's not really the extra thought that's prompted the change - after all, I could just spend the extra thought on looking for the best prices.

When I had a job, I sold my skills - mostly intellectual skills - for money, which I then exchanged for stuff. I was primarily a consumer. Now - note the blog title - although I still consume stuff (though less so), I am primarily a producer. This is what's prompted the change in attitude. Spending my time producing things makes me think much more about how other things are produced, too.

I often find myself considering whether to buy something or try making it myself. Very often, the question is, Why spend all that time making something when it's so cheap to buy? In more reflective moments the next question is, Why are these things so cheap to buy? Although efficiency is part of the answer - particularly with my lack of expertise, I tend to be slow, and there are economies of scale - I believe that most of the answer is exploitation. Even with much greater expertise and more efficient processes, no-one can produce things at these prices and still make a decent living for themselves.

I find myself forced to acknowledge that our prices are all wrong. We're paying far too little for most of the things we buy. The reason that things are available to us at such low prices is that people are working their socks off (if they can even afford socks) for pitifully low wages. Mostly this happens in foreign lands, far away and out of sight, so it's easy to ignore.

I don't want to be part of this system. I don't want to exploit people, wherever they are. It's not easy to hold this position at the same time as trying to live on a low income (though when you put it into context, really not that low), but I'll try. Much of the time I'll fail - I don't know much about the supply chain for the value ranges at the supermarket, for example - but at least I'll try, and hopefully I'll gradually move towards a point where I know where all my stuff comes from, and I'm happy that the people I'm buying from are getting a fair deal.

Now, back to the shoes. These are my old shoes:

Old shoes

They are simple, flat shoes for everyday wear. I like these shoes and would be happy to get them repaired if I could, but the moulded rubber soles are not designed to be mended. I have worn them as long as I could, but now holes in the soles are letting in water. And stones.

I went to shoe shops looking for a replacement pair and came away depressed. They were all the same mass-produced, disposable shoes that I'd been wearing happily for years, but didn't feel comfortable with any more. If I'm honest, I didn't much like the styles available, either.

I'd noticed a while earlier that a friend had posted a link on facebook to a local shoe maker, Ruth Emily Davey. Tempting, but surely very expensive (no prices given on the website, but...) I parked the thought, but found myself coming back to it again and again. Yes, it would cost a lot of money, but wouldn't it be great to have a pair of shoes made by a local craftswoman? I wondered how much I'd be prepared to spend. These shoes are designed to be repaired again and again, so I'm looking at a very long term investment. I typically spend £40 to £50 on a pair of shoes and they often wear out in a year. If I buy a pair that lasts ten years, I could go up to £500 (this calculation is skewed by repair costs, but then hopefully they'll last longer than ten years, too).

On impulse one day I went to Ruth's workshop when I was in town with a bit of time to kill. She usually requires an appointment, but she kindly talked to me there and then, measured my feet, and... I put down a deposit on a pair of shoes. Including adjustments to the pattern (my feet are size seven and a quarter, apparently) the final cost was nearly £450 pounds and for that I get made-to-measure shoes designed to fit actual feet. I'd always thought my feet were an unusual shape (wide at the toes and narrow at the heels) because standard shoes don't fit them very well, but apparently this is quite normal. Standard shoes don't fit anyone terribly well. Even the off the shelf samples I tried on that day were the most comfortable shoes I'd ever worn.

I had to wait a while because Ruth was busy with other orders, but a couple of months later my new shoes were ready. Here they are:

I have purple shoes!

They felt a little too big when I first tried them on, but that's because there really is space around the toes. They fit snugly over the arch and around the heel. The first day I had them, I walked two miles with no problems at all - no rubbing, no blisters. I really appreciated how comfortable the are a few weeks later, when I put on my walking boots. They felt hideously uncomfortable by comparison.

So, I now have a very superior pair of shoes made by a local craftswoman working in decent conditions. The fact that I paid more for them than Ian generally pays for a car is, I think, right.

Wednesday 2 January 2013

Hat rack

Since we remodelled the airing cupboard to take the thermal store for the new heating system, we've been using the old pipes as a hat rack.

Old heating pipes bent into hooks for hats

This was kind of OK, but they didn't fit very well and I usually knocked at least one off when I was trying to take another out of the cupboard. When I went to help Dad with his house in Cornwall, I scrounged the coat pegs from his house. Over the last few days I've given them a couple of coats of paint, and this morning I hung them on the wall, then added hats.

New coat hat rack

They're not ideal - it would be better if the pegs were further apart - but they're a lot better than what we had before. I decided it really wasn't worth the effort of cutting them up and fixing each part separately, so this is what we've got. I'm starting January as I mean to go on, getting small jobs ticked off the list.

Goodbye 2012, and good riddance!

2012 looked mostly like this:

And the garden looked mostly like this:

It wasn't the best of years. I had depression, too, which wasn't caused by the weather and the slugs, but they didn't help. It is getting better now, though. Recognising the problem and not expecting too much of myself for a while has given me space to recover. I'm now starting to feel like doing things again, which is great.

I'm not going to make the mistake of launching myself into big projects straight away; I'll work up to it. January will be a month of pottering about, doing small jobs and planning. Probably marmalade, too. Maybe that's where last year went wrong - I didn't make any marmalade.

I'll start the new year properly at Imbolc (beginning of February), which feels much more like the start of the year to me. By that time I'll be ready to tackle the solar panels project. I'm confidently expecting this year to be better than last year, but in the meantime I'll remind myself that last year had some pretty bits too: