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

Friday 29 March 2013

Foraged Food Friday: Sorrel

I'm cheating a bit today, because I'm not sure I've actually eaten sorrel this week, but I have been harvesting it for a while. This is a common herb that grows abundantly in and around my garden. It grows amongst grass, which I failed to cut back in the autumn, so the little sorrel leaves are struggling to find their way through mounds of dry grass.

Sorrel (Rumex acetosa)

These leaves have a sharp, lemony flavour, caused not by citric acid as the taste suggests, nor acetic acid, as the Latin name implies, but oxalic acid, as found in rhubarb. This can contribute to kidney stones, but as it is apparently also present in rather a long list of healthy foods, it's probably not worth avoiding sorrel for the sake of oxalic acid. To quote somebody or other, No one ever died of an overdose of rhubarb crumble.

A few sorrel leaves make a pleasant addition to a salad, and can be added to sauces and suchlike in place of lemon juice, though you do have to use a fair bit of it. One unfortunate feature is that as soon as it gets hot, the colour changes from bright green to a dull and unappealing khaki. It still tastes good, though.

Also harvesting this week:
leek (the last one)
ground elder

Also eating:
evening primrose roots
peas (the last from the garden last summer, which were only fit for soup, so have been in the freezer for some time)

Also drinking:
sloe wine
rhubarb cordial

Foraged food challenge summary page here.

Monday 25 March 2013

Caring for things

I was brought up to believe that we shouldn't attach too much importance to things. What really matters in life is other people, and we shouldn't care too much about mere stuff. I basically still stand by this, but I've been wondering recently whether there's a danger of taking it too far.

If we attach no importance to things, we're essentially treating them as worthless, and there's a very short step between worthless and disposable. I may feel that not caring too much about things is anti-materialist, but I still use things. Treating things as worthless tends to result in losing track of them and/or throwing them away, so next time I need that thing, I have to buy another one. Not caring about things can actually lead to consumerist behaviour.

Having bought a pair of hand made shoes, I feel the need to take care of them, otherwise they'll get ruined and that would be a shocking waste of money. Notice that word care? Caring for things is very closely related to caring about things. In fact, without the latter I think the former is almost impossible. It's the same with my kettle. Although I didn't pay much for it, valuing it highly gives me the motivation to polish it (and mend it if necessary).

Today I needed wire strippers. I have a beautiful pair that I inherited from my grandparents, who had no sense of economy at all. They always bought the best, whether they could afford it or not.

I couldn't find them, so I asked Ian, and he sheepishly admitted that they were, In the garage... somewhere. I sent him to find them (I had already looked there) but when he brought them back I was less bothered by the fact he'd borrowed them than by the state of the blades. I'm trying to avoid turning this into a whinge about my husband, but I was really upset. He'd used them as pliers to remove a stubborn circlip, and they no longer had beautiful, sharp, close-fitting, V-shaped blades. A bit of work with a needle file returned them to a usable state, but they're not the high quality tool they once were.

It still feels wrong to be so attached to an object, but actually I do care and I'm not entirely sure that's a bad thing. If we value tools enough to look after them, they can last a lifetime. If not, we end up on the treadmill of cheap, disposable crap.

Friday 22 March 2013

Foraged Food Friday: Fennel

Although it's still been cold this week, I was determined to go out in search of alexanders, which tends to grow near the coast. I've yet to see any around Aberystwyth, but surely there must be some somewhere. One evening I took a walk up Constitution Hill, and found nothing but gorse and a small candle burning on a tiny stone table, under a tree. Yesterday evening I tried again, this time choosing the Ystwyth Trail, thinking that a riverside walk would be a likely place to find various plants.

I battled into the brisk south easterly wind - so strong I could barely stand up at times - for about half an hour without seeing anything interesting. Then just as I was about to turn back, I spotted some feathery, dark plants in the grass, growing about six inches tall.

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare). It will grow much bigger

That looks like... a pinch of the leaves released the scent... yes, it's fennel! I didn't even know that fennel grows wild until I saw it mentioned in some foraging blog, about a week ago. I used to have some in my garden, though, and it looks exactly like this. Actually, from the bronze colour, I wouldn't be surprised if it's an escaped garden variety, rather than the more common kind, but still, it's definitely growing wild here.

A note of caution here: Fennel, like its relative alexanders, is related to the poisonous hemlock, so you have to be very sure you've got the right plant. That said, carrots and parsnips are also in the same family, so don't assume the whole family's dangerous - it's not - you just have to know which plant you have. The leaves of hemlock look nothing like these fennel fronds, so they're not at all confusable at this age, but they do have similar flowers, so I suppose you could mix up the older plants, if you were being really careless.

The scent of fennel is strong and distinctive, like aniseed. In my opinion, alexanders is somewhat similar, but not everyone agrees on that. So, I hadn't found what I was looking for, but a somewhat stronger-tasting relative. That was still an excellent result. I cut one or two fronds from each of the larger plants and took them home.

Fennel fronds. I'm not sure why they look so much greener in this light.

Since the flavour is quite strong, I treat fennel more as a herb than a vegetable, so the fairly small amount I gathered was still too much to use all in one go (bearing in mind it's just me eating it). I put half in the fridge and cooked the other half with one tiny leek from the garden and some frozen peas, as a side vegetable, which was delicious. We're having pizza for dinner tonight, so I'll put the other half on that.

Also harvesting this week:
Lesser celandine
Ground elder
Leek (just the one)

Also eating this week:
Evening primrose roots
Blackcurrant fruit leather
Crab apple and mint jelly

Also drinking:
Blackcurrant wine
Dandelion tea (dried flowers mostly eaten by tiny bugs living in the tin)

Foraged food challenge summary page here.

Sunday 17 March 2013

New fridge and table/shelf

There's a space in the corner of our kitchen, next to the sink, under a cupboard, with an electricity socket, which is obviously where the fridge should go. Our old fridge freezer is just a shade too tall to fit under that cupboard, which has irritated me since we moved here. There's space for it (it's a big kitchen) but I'd much rather use that space for a small table and a couple of chairs so that guests can sit in the kitchen and chat to me while I cook dinner. We don't actually have dinner guests very often, but I can pretend, can't I?

I've had the old fridge for fourteen years and it was second hand when I bought it, so I'm reckoning it's been on its last legs for a while. About a week ago I poured milk on my breakfast cereal and it came out lumpy - not cheese as I initially assumed, but icy slush. That was all the excuse I needed to get a new fridge. I have to confess that my choice of new appliance was not informed by ethical treatment of workers, or any other such noble motive. No, my one criterion for choosing a new fridge freezer was whether it would fit under my cupboard.

New fridge

With the fridge in its proper place, I could now have my table and chairs in the kitchen. I might not have got round to addressing this for some time were it not for the fact that I'd also lost the fridge-top space, which is where the fruit bowl lived. The fruit bowl was getting in the way and annoying me, so I'd have to see about that table.

I used to have a decorative table made from an old treadle with a glass top. Since the treadle has been put to better use, the glass top has been somewhat redundant. I retrieved this from the loft and a 1.1m length of 2x2* from the workshop. I'm not sure what I bought this length of wood for, but I evidently didn't use it all. I also found some offcuts of bed slats, part of which Ian had used to renovate a chair we found at the tip.

The piece of glass is so small that I decided shelf brackets would be quite adequate to support it, so my first task was to make brackets. The bed slats were ideal for the bit that goes against the wall, so I needed two horizontal pieces and two diagonal struts. With a little thought, I realised that I'd get the best use out of my length of wood if I made all the cuts diagonal in the first place, rather than cutting straight then taking bits off, so that's what I did. After tidying up the cuts with rasp and sandpaper, I then assembled the brackets with extensive use of set squares (two, one large and one small) and a certain amount of rummaging around in search of suitable screws. Finally I fixed them to the wall and placed the glass on top.

New table/shelf, with fruit bowl.

One day I'll get round to cleaning up the skirting board and replacing it, and I might even paint the wall while I'm at it. In the meantime, it's nice to have somewhere to put the fruit bowl.


*Inches (but not really, because that's the sawn dimensions and I bought this planed). Yes, that is a mixture of metric and imperial measurements. What of it?

Friday 15 March 2013

Foraged Food Friday: Ground Elder

I was going to go out and look for Alexanders this week, but it's been far too cold for that kind of slow searching. Last year I found some in Cornwall, but I haven't spotted any near here yet. Maybe the weather will be better next week, but in the meantime I've settled for something closer to home.

First sighting of ground elder leaves a couple of months ago

I've been gathering ground elder since mid January, and by now the leaves are one to two inches across and it's abundant enough to gather a colander full in about ten minutes.

Ground elder (Aegopodium podagraria) now easily harvestable under my hedge.
The paler leaves in the foreground are poppies.

The great thing about ground elder from the forager's point of view is that no matter how much you pick, you can be confident you won't kill the plant. The terrible thing about ground elder from the gardener's point of view is that now matter how often you hack it back, you just can't get rid of the stuff. It's said that the Romans introduced it to this country as a vegetable, and most gardeners wish they hadn't bothered. The flavour is like mild parsley and it's edible either raw or cooked. Many people don't think much of it, but I like it.

I made quiche yesterday and had a bit of pastry left over, so I made my favourite ground elder dish, wild green pies. I had a bit of blue cheese in the fridge that needed eating up (to be honest, it wasn't blue when I bought it), a little leftover quiche mix plus one egg white, and some mashed potato. I chopped the leaves, grated in the cheese, and mixed everything else in, then wrapped it in pastry and cooked.

One wild green pie. Quite a lot for lunch, but I was hungry.

It could have done with a bit of seasoning actually. I thought the cheese would have been stronger, but it was still nice. I will continue using ground elder as a vegetable and a herb for a couple more months, and might try drying some to use as a substitute for dried parsley next winter.

Also harvesting this week:
Um, nothing. It's been cold!

Also drinking this week:
Blackcurrant wine.

Foraged food challenge summary page here.

Wednesday 13 March 2013

Many tomato seedlings

The propagator has been very successful, with the first seedlings (Moneymaker tomatoes, kindly donated by VP) coming through in just four days. The other variety of tomatoes, which I'm fairly sure are Roma (saved seed), followed a few days later. I spent every morning for ten days or so pricking out tomato seedlings, until I was heartily sick of the job and had far more tomatoes than I knew what to do with.

One windowsill full of tomato seedlings

More to the point, I had nowhere to put them. The weather's been so cold recently that they'd probably die if I left them in the greenhouse overnight, so I have to bring them indoors, and I don't have that much windowsill space. Yet again, I find myself with a surplus of tomatoes.

The difference between now and two years ago, though, is that I know a lot more people locally now than I did then. I asked around who'd like some seedlings - I already have Moneymaker, but I'll have some Roma, I don't have any space to keep them indoors because we're having the bathroom replaced right now, and, Yes please! - and so I got rid of all my spare seedlings. Now all I have to do is take care of the ones I've kept.

Friday 8 March 2013

Foraged Food Friday: Lesser Celandine

I had always thought celandines were poisonous until Mandy mentioned them last spring in her blog post on the edible lawn. It's important to note that the plant we're talking about here is the lesser celandine, Ranunculus ficaria, not the greater celandine, Chelidonium majus, which most definitely is poisonous and is completely unrelated to the lesser celandine.

That said, even the lesser celandine contains low levels of toxins, so don't eat too much of it raw. It's OK cooked, though, as the toxins are destroyed by heat. I can't find a reference for the next bit, but I did read that the level of toxins increases as the plant gets older, so it's best avoided after it's flowered (I'm not sure whether the flowering is significant, or just an indicator of how old the plant is). Again, that's probably only relevant to eating it raw.

Right then, warnings out of the way... on with the foraging! This plant is easiest to identify by its flowers (so long as you can distinguish them from buttercups) but since I'm harvesting before it flowers, I have to recognise the leaves.

Leaves of lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria)

It helps that I've seen the flowers on this spot last spring and the one before, so I know where to look. Otherwise, these leaves would be difficult to spot, especially when they first emerge. By now, the larger leaves are about an inch long, but there are still plenty of tiny leaves too. I've been picking and eating these for a couple of weeks, but this is the first time I've been able to harvest enough to make a serving as a side vegetable (just the one serving - Ian's not keen on green veg at the best of times, so he doesn't get any).

There are two patches of celandines in my garden, both on a rather steep slope where the ground is very soft, being mostly composed of old grass cuttings, and the risk of ending up in the stream is quite high. Harvesting is therefore rather slow going, and this lot took about half an hour to collect. I didn't take a photo of the cooked veg, but here's some from an earlier meal, with a bit of salmon in an omelette.

Salmon and celandine omelette

The taste is a bit like spinach, but it doesn't disappear down to nothing when you cook it, the way spinach does, which is just as well, considering how small the leaves are to start with. I'm not sure I like it enough to eat as a side vegetable very often, but it's good mixed with other leaves (mostly ground elder, at the moment) or as an addition to other dishes, such as this omelette, or soup. I think I spotted some flowering near the coast the other day, so I probably won't be harvesting this for much longer anyway.

Also harvesting this week:
Evening primrose roots (some eaten, some still in fridge)
Dandelion roots (washed and dried, to be roasted when convenient)
Ground elder
Lemon thyme

Also eating this week:
Blackcurrant fruit leather
Blackberry and bilberry jam
Crab apple and mint jelly

Also drinking this week:
Blackcurrant wine

Foraged food challenge summary page here.

Tuesday 5 March 2013

Feeding the terrace

As stated in my previous post on the subject, my hugelkultur terrace needed more stuff. The level hadn't dropped very much, but enough to be noticeable if you really looked. No doubt this process will continue as everything rots down, so it'll need feeding regularly, I expect.

Over the course of a couple of months, starting in December when I thought the plants might be going dormant for the winter, I added extra stuff to the terrace. I added lots of bark from our firewood (it holds water, so if the logs have been rained on, that'll be the wettest bit), bracken, all sorts of straw and woody bits from the garden, hedge trimmings, and lots of oak leaves. The result is that my once-green terrace is again brown.

Terrace under winter mulch

I now wait anxiously to see how many of the plants make it up through that layer. I'm sure the buttercups and, unfortunately, the grass will get through; I hope the speedwell and clover make it, too. At worst, I'll have a buttercup meadow, which really isn't that bad, is it?

Monday 4 March 2013

The trouble with old-fashioned kettles...

... is that it's possible for them to boil dry. As I mentioned previously, when I was little my mum taught be how to listen for the water boiling, and stressed the importance of not letting the kettle boil dry. I never knew quite why a kettle shouldn't be allowed to boil dry, but I knew it was important. Ian's mum evidently had more modern equipment in her kitchen.

Last Monday morning, after an internet free weekend (i.e. the service was down) that meant Ian was behind with work, he got up early, put the kettle on and started work... and got engrossed in work. Some time later he was startled by a crash from the kitchen, so rushed through to find this:

Something seems to be missing

*Insert expletive*

Once we'd stopped swearing, I assessed the damage. Although it's not obvious in that picture, the kettle had changed colour, so it looked as though all the copper had come off. This is ridiculous, as it's made of copper, with just a thin lining of tin. What had actually happened was that the heat caused a thin film of copper oxide to form, changing the apparent colour of the metal. It shouldn't be too difficult to remove this layer. Of more concern was the absent spout. Well, not so much absent as detached. Looking at the place where the spout used to be, it became obvious what had happened.

Solder line where spout was attached

The spout had been soldered onto the body of the kettle, and without water to absorb the heat, the kettle just got hotter and hotter until the solder melted and the spout fell off. Now I know why you should never let a kettle boil dry.

Soldering is a job I reckon I could tackle. I did quite a bit of playing around with electronics as a teenager, and as it happens, Dad recently bought me a new soldering iron. But first, what about the solder? I spent some time looking up different types of food grade solder. In fact, I spent the best part of a morning, as was starting to wonder whether I might end up spending as much on solder as I had on the kettle, before I thought to check the tube of solder I had in the cupboard.

Composition of solder

That's almost entirely tin, with a tiny bit of copper. Entirely safe to use on my kettle, then. Jolly good.

My first attempts at mending the kettle were a complete failure. Quite apart from the challenges of supporting the body of the kettle whilst holding the spout (liable to get hot) at the same time as soldering iron and solder, I found I just couldn't get the thing hot enough to melt the solder. Hmph. Was my new soldering iron duff? Or was it just not designed for this sort of work?

Chatting with my neighbour Gill a few days later, she (who turns out to have more expertise in this area than I do) confirmed my suspicion that a soldering iron will always struggle to heat a large copper object, because copper is an excellent conductor and whisks the heat away from where you need it. Gill had more to offer than good advice, though, she also lent me her metalworking blowtorch. Thank you!

Even with the right tools, this was still a difficult job. I thought I'd start by tacking the spout on with a little dab of solder, then working around the seam. However, what with copper spreading the heat around as it does, the spout kept falling off again. The only way to do it was all in one go. This meant getting a line of solder all molten at once then fitting the spout in place and holding until it was set (I ended up using kitchen tongs to hold the spout).

That wasn't the end of it because of course it leaked. I had to keep filling the kettle, locating leaks, drying the kettle (steam not helpful when soldering) then applying more solder to that spot, being careful not to heat the kettle so much that the spout came off again. Eventually, though, I had a non leaking kettle.

Mended kettle

It's not the prettiest of joins, and the spout isn't quite as vertical as it once was, but we can now use the pretty copper kettle again. I suspect the solder splashes will polish off in time, as tin is much softer than copper, but even if they don't, they just add character, don't they?

Edit: This happened again, while I was away. Evidently my husband cannot be trusted in charge of an old-fashioned kettle. I couldn't face mending it again, knowing that it would probably fail again, so we bought a cheap modern kettle. It's still a stove-top kettle, but it has a whistle. In fact, it has a horrible whistle, so there's a strong incentive to make it shut up. This happened in the summer and I still (late Oct) haven't decided what to do with the spoutless copper kettle.

Friday 1 March 2013

Foraged Food Friday: Evening Primrose roots

I was going to tell you about lesser celandine this week, but these are new to me and that makes them much more interesting.

I'd harvested a load of bittercress and was planning to make soup with it, but wasn't sure what to use as thickener. I had a feeling I'd heard that evening primrose leaves are good for this purpose, so I looked them up. As well as the Plants for a future entry that I'd seen before, I found three further websites that confirmed the edibility of all parts (with Eat the Weeds warning that some people find it irritates the throat), though none of these mentioned the soup-thickening qualities of the leaves. However, I'll often use potato in soups, so perhaps evening primrose roots would be a good substitute.

I have lots of these plants coming up in my garden path - well, all over the garden, actually, but it's the ones in the path that definitely need digging up. Now, they're rosettes of leaves about three to four inches across, but they'll get a lot bigger.

Leaves of evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) at the start of its second year.
The leaves turn green as they get older, and on some plants are already. I'm not sure what makes the difference.

This is a biennial plant plant and it's worth noting the distinction between the first and second year of growth. This plant will have grown from seed last year - I guess the seed would have been shed that same year, but I'm not sure - and, if I hadn't dug it up to eat it, would grow up to three or four feet tall and have pretty yellow flowers (that don't look at all like primrose flowers, incidentally). Sacred Earth states that only the first year's roots should be used, but also discusses harvesting them in the autumn. I suspect that, like parsnips, overwintered roots are just as good, provided they haven't put all their energy into making a new plant. I did try digging up some second year roots as well (easy to identify by the dead flower-stalks), just for the sake of experiment, and discovered when I tried to cut them that they're hard and woody, so I didn't bother with them after that.

Once harvested and cleaned, you can see that the plant has a pretty substantial root.

Evening primrose with nice fat root. Others are long and skinny, or split in many places.

I added half a dozen or so of these to my soup and boiled them in stock before I added the greens. Tasting a piece - even taking account of the fact it had been cooked in stock - I'd say these are delicious! It has a smooth texture but I can't describe the flavour; I wouldn't call it peppery (as other have) - perhaps nutty. I can't put my finger on what it reminds me of - possibly kohl rabi. I haven't tried salsify, which it's also been compared to, so it might well be like that. Anyway, I like it a lot, so I dug up a load more (from what will be the potato patch), which are now sitting in my kitchen sink waiting to be cleaned for dinner. I think I've had enough of bittercress now, though.

EDIT: Jerusalem artichokes! That's what it reminds me of.

Also harvesting this week:
Lesser celandine
Ground elder (with celandine in fish cakes)
Bay leaves (in chicken stock)
Leeks (tops in stock; side veg with chicken)

Also eating:
Red cabbage (last bit, in fish cakes)
Garlic (have been for weeks, but didn't think to mention it before, as it's such a fixture in the kitchen)

Also drinking:
Rhubarb cordial

Foraged food challenge summary page here.