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

Friday 26 April 2013

Foraged Food Friday: Goose Grass

I went out yesterday morning in the hope of finding some St George's mushrooms, it being the right time of year for them, but didn't have much luck. I did see this little cutie, though, so the walk was not without its rewards.

Cute but slightly nervous-looking lamb

Having failed to find any fungi of note, I decided on goose grass for this week. I've known for a while that it's edible, but been put off by its velcro-like texture. On the other hand, if I can cope with eating nettles, what's a bit of velcro to me?

The goose grass (I know it has many names, but I've always known it as goose grass and I'm sticking to that) is a few inches tall at the moment, and the young leaves are still quite tender. I'm not sure I'd want to try this later in the year as it gets tougher.

Goose grass (Galium aparine) being small, and not quite in focus

For the first attempt on this plant, I decided to bypass the texture entirely and make a tea from it.

Goose grass tea

The taste was, um, OK really. If the leaves were bitter - as I've heard this plant can be - that didn't transfer to the tea. I'm not sure I can describe the flavour; I didn't particularly like it but then I didn't particularly dislike it, either. I'll probably include these young leaves in mixed, cooked greens as a side vegetable, but in the meantime, apparently this drink (or one made with cold water) is an excellent tonic for the skin. Mine could certainly do with it.

Also harvesting this week:
Wild garlic
Garlic mustard
Ground elder
Dandelions flowers (to dry)
Dandelion roots (to dry and roast)

Also eating this week:
Crab apple and rowan jelly

Also drinking this week:
Dandelion root coffee
Sloe wine
Heather ale

Foraged food challenge summary page here.

Friday 19 April 2013

Foraged Food Friday: Wild Garlic

Last year, I was very excited to discover wild garlic growing by the stream that runs along the edge of my garden.

Wild garlic (Allium ursinum), also known as ramsons

Then we had floods, and when I next checked that spot, I was very sad to see the stones scoured clean by the water - all dirt, and presumably plants, washed away. However, going back for another look earlier this week...

They're back! Though the moss and other plants have gone, ramsons are coming up around the stones. Last year's photo was taken on 9th March, whereas this is 15th April. The cold weather we've had has really set things back this year.

... all is not lost! Wild garlic is growing, if anything, even more abundantly than it was last year. I don't know whether they survived as bulbs or seeds, but evidently it takes more than torrential flood water to shift wild garlic.

I picked a few leaves to go in a salad (along with navelwort, sorrel, and cold chicken and potato). In fact, in my excitement I picked about three times as much as I needed. Ramsons, unsurprisingly, do taste a lot more garlicky than Jack-by-the-hedge. I had the rest on pizza, later in the day, which was very nice, as was the chicken and garlic soup I had yesterday. I really like wild garlic a lot.

Also harvesting this week:
Dandelion flowers, to dry for tea

Also eating this week:
Crab apple and rowan jelly

Also drinking:
Blackcurrant wine
Sloe wine
Blackcurrant cordial
Dandelion root coffee

Foraged food challenge summary page here.

Thursday 18 April 2013

Growing potatoes from seed

Although we talk of Seed potatoes they are not, technically speaking, seeds. They are tubers. However, potato plants do also flower and produce fruit, which of course contain seeds.

Flowering potato

Whilst wandering around the internet some time last year, I came across this forum thread all about growing potatoes from seed. The surprising thing is that it's possible at all, and that they'll crop within a year - not as heavily as growing from a tuber, but still a crop of sorts. I learnt that, unlike growing from tubers, potatoes grown from seeds will not come true to the parent. Some may consider this undesirable, as you don't really know what you're going to get, but I think it's quite good fun to introduce a bit of variation. There's always the possibility of breeding a new strain that's particularly well suited to my own garden. It also overcomes a problem in saving tubers, that blight and other diseases might be carried on from one generation to the next. Apparently this doesn't happen with seeds.

As an entertaining experiment, rather than seriously expecting to get much of a crop, I thought I'd give it a go. After all, collecting a few fruit as they dropped off the plants was no trouble at all. I kept them on a windowsill to ripen... and then failed to carry out the next steps, which are to cut open the fruit and spread the seeds out to dry. So it was that come the springtime, my saved potato seeds looked like this:

Potato fruit, not looking at their best. To be fair, they're no use to anyone when they do look good, because they're not ripe then

Undeterred, I squished the manky old fruit to extract the seeds and spread them about a bit in a couple of seed trays. Since they're related to tomatoes, I'm treating them the same, so started them in the propagator. As seedlings started to emerge, I had the problem that I have no idea what potato seedlings look like. I hoped they'd look like tomato seedlings, so I'd be able to recognise them that way, but they don't. Eventually, enough similar looking seedlings emerged in clusters where I hadn't spread the seeds out enough, that I decided those must be the potatoes.

Once they got to a reasonable size, I pricked them out into pots and now have quite a few healthy looking little plants (though a few of them got cooked under the glass, particularly those in the tallest pots, which didn't have ventilation with the glass resting on top).

Seedlings. Probably potatoes.

I'm still not 100% convinced these are actually potatoes, though.

Friday 12 April 2013

Foraged Food Friday: Garlic mustard

A friend recommended this plant to me last spring, and in May I found a plant in my garden that looked very much like the picture in my book...

Looking similar

... but the leaves didn't taste of anything very much.

The other day I noticed these plants coming up again...

Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), also called Jack-by-the-hedge

... and tasted a leaf (note: This method of plant identification is not recommended). This time I could taste both garlic and mustard quite distinctly, though neither was very strong. I wonder if the older plant I tried last year was just so much milder that I couldn't detect the distinctive flavours.

Having positively identified the plant, I picked a handful of leaves yesterday and added them to leftover soup (the leftovers being mostly mashed potato and gravy) along with nettles, celandine and a little ground elder, just because there's so much of it around at the moment. The soup was nice, though I can't say I particularly tasted garlic and mustard, but then if I'd added those two spices separately, I wouldn't expect the flavours to stand out in a soup like that.

I think this one's a useful herb.

Also harvesting this week:
Ground elder
Leek (just one, so small that I previously mistook it for grass)

Also drinking this week:
Blackberry wine

Foraged food challenge summary page here.

Thursday 11 April 2013

In which my past comes back to haunt me

I recently joined, then rather shortly afterwards took over leading, a pub philosophy group. We don't meet in a pub - indeed the venue is alcohol free - but the idea is to exercise our brains discussing philosophical questions in a relaxed environment. I offered to take the lead when the founder left as I've studied philosophy and even taught a bit, though that was all rather a long time ago.

This week's topic was, Mind and brain: One kind of stuff or two? I was asked if I could provide a bit more structure than the somewhat freewheeling discussions we've had so far, which I agreed to do. This meant homework. I dug out my old teaching notes and found a file marked, Mind Brain notes. That should do. I looked at my old notes and was dismayed to find how much I'd forgotten. What did Ryle say again? Who the hell was Place?* This was stuff I used to know really well and now I couldn't drag it out of my memory at all.

At about the same time, my friend Gill mentioned a Horizon programme she thought I'd be interested in, The Creative Brain: How Insight Works.** Um, yes, I'd be very interested. That was the area I used to research.

Watching Horizon was an unexpectedly emotional experience. It wasn't just a programme about a topic I used to study, it was all about my work. I'm not trying to claim anyone pinched my ideas, but I'd been doing just those experiments. The scientists featured were my peers. But I left that world six years ago. When I tried to remember the results of a study that was particularly similar to one featured in the programme, I couldn't. The feeling was rather like visiting the town where I grew up: a mixture of familiarity and strangeness; a peculiar kind of homesickness.

I don't really want to go back to that world. Every time I talk to someone who works in a university I'm reminded of all the bad things about institutional life, things that I put up with at the time but I'm very glad to be rid of now. At the same time, it wasn't just a job to me. My work was very central to my self-image, and to a large extent still is: I think of myself as a scientist.

When we moved here I wondered whether I'd miss the intellectual stimulation. I don't, but what I do miss is talking to people who have the same education as me; people who live in the same intellectual environment; people I can make assumptions about. There are lots of interesting people here and it's challenging to discuss ideas with someone who has a completely different viewpoint, but I don't want to be challenged all the time.

I spent too much of yesterday investigating whether I could afford to go to a particular conference that I've been to a few times before. I'd really love to go, but not sure whether I can justify the £500 or so that it would cost, and also not sure whether it's really a good idea. Would it just make me miss that world even more? The thing is, I feel at home there in a way that I just don't here.


* We don't refer to philosophers' ideas much in the discussions, but I'd used these names in my notes as shorthand for fairly lengthy arguments.

** If you watch this programme, please ignore almost all uses of the word, Creativity. The links between the insight experience and creativity are tenuous, to say the least.

Sunday 7 April 2013

Foraged Food Friday: Nettles

Um, yes, I am a bit late with this (though I did eat the nettles on Friday), and I don't even have anything very exciting to tell you about. We went for a walk along the coast yesterday, where I hoped to find some interesting coastal plants, but didn't spot anything apart from seaweed, which I'm not quite brave enough to try just yet.

So, what do we have? It's boring old nettles. Well, they're boring to me because I've been eating them for years, but perhaps you've never tried them? Like dandelions, nettles are widely regarded as a troublesome garden weed, but unlike dandelions (in my opinion) the leaves are a tasty vegetable. Some describe them as bland, but I find it quite a strong flavour and prefer to mix them with blander leaves, on this occasion ground elder.

One small nettle (Urtica dioica) coming through the grass

The obvious feature of nettles is the sting, which puts a lot of people off eating them, but there are ways of dealing with it, mainly by cooking. I know someone who even eats nettles raw. She crushes the stinging hairs by rolling the leaves between her fingers and then, she says, they're quite safe to eat. I'm not that brave, myself. My technique is to take scissors to snip the young leaves off and catch them in a colander. I don't bother with gloves, so do occasionally get stung through one of the holes in the colander, but mostly I'm fine. To prepare them to eat, I tip them into a pan or (usually) steamer and cook until they're thoroughly wilted. I once undercooked some and there was a zing to the flavour, somewhat like chilli or ginger. It was rather pleasant, but I'm not sure I'd do it deliberately.

As well as being quite tasty, nettles are very rich in nutrients, particularly iron. They've been used medicinally for all sorts of things, and the plants have numerous other uses, too. Check out the Plants for a Future page for more details. All in all, nettles are a highly valuable plant, so don't be scared of them!

Also harvesting this week
Heather (for ale)
Ground elder

Also drinking
Sloe wine
Blackberry wine

Foraged food challenge summary page here.

Wednesday 3 April 2013

In which I get myself a little job

I didn't really want to get a job when we moved here, and I haven't found myself missing anything about the world of work, but when Ian's freelance income started to fall last autumn, I did start considering the options. Luckily, things are looking up now, but one of the options I considered was the kiosk at Devil's Bridge Falls. I know a couple of people who work there part time, and it seems like a rather pleasant job. I didn't do anything about it, but a couple of weeks ago Vicky got in touch to ask if I'd be interested in a few shifts, so I said yes.

A key advantage of this job is that a few shifts is an option. I don't have to commit myself to working full time, or even half time; I can still see self-sufficiency projects as my main occupation whilst earning a few pounds on the side. Another key advantage is that it's ten minutes walk from my house (or a bit more by the time I've been to collect the keys to open up in the morning).

I had my training on Friday and did my first shift this morning. I loved the fact that the first task when I arrived was to put the bird feeders out.

Bird feeder at the start of the nature walk

Drawing back a little, here's the view from my office...

... though of course I can't spend my whole time admiring the view. I do have to turn round and pay attention to customers most of the time.

My workspace

Working at a tourist attraction means chatting to people who are out enjoying themselves, so it's really rather good fun. I need to improve my knowledge of the local area so I can be more helpful when asked for directions, but improving my local knowledge would be quite a good thing anyway.

Although our finances are OK at the moment, there are things that I'd like to do, but hesitate over the cost. For example, there's a foraging course that I'd like to go on; one shift at the Falls would just about pay for that, so now I'm much happier to book a place without feeling that I can't justify the expense.

Tuesday 2 April 2013

Experimenting with Fraoch

I've been making beer from kits for a while now and the results are fine, but I don't see it as particularly self sufficient, it's just a way of buying beer more cheaply. I think starting from scratch (all grain) is more work than I want to put in, at least for now, but I recently came across this article by Andy Hamilton in Countryfile, which taught me about an intermediate alternative: Use malt extract but add the flavourings separately.

I hadn't really thought about what the beer kit gloop is, but Andy explains that it's malt extract already infused with hops. I had a look at the ingredients for the medium difficulty brewing, and the only difference from the kit is the addition of hops. Hmm, I thought, that's one more thing to buy (since I don't know of any hops growing wild around here), but there are alternatives to hops for bittering ale (traditionally, ale did not have hops and beer did, but the meanings have changed now). I've tried this commercial Fraoch and liked it very much, so I fancied having a go at a heather ale. Of course, the sensible thing would be to start with a malt extract plus hops recipe, or at the very least a recipe, and work my way up to experimenting, but that's not my style.

I read up on heather in ale, and learnt that the flowers and tips are both used, but each have different characteristics. The flowers give aromatic notes whereas the growing tips and twiggy bits give the bitter flavours. This makes sense - the tender new growth is most attractive to grazing animals, so that's where plants tend to concentrate bitter compounds. I have a few heather plants in the garden, which just now are covered in flowers and new growth, so this is an ideal time to harvest some.

Flowering heather in my garden

The bees love these flowers - at least, they would if it was warm enough to get outside - so I don't want to take too many. I hunted around for guides on how much to use and found a huge variation, from a couple of ounces of flowers (only) in 2.75 gallons to 12 2/3 cups (why 2/3?) of flowers and tips in 5 gallons to a pound or more of flowers in 5 gallons. I also considered how much ale to make. It's typically brewed in five gallon batches or more, and I wondered if there was a good reason for this. I typically make wine in one or two gallon batches and it seems to work fine. Five gallons is a lot to risk on an experiment. I found an article addressing this very question, which assured me that there is no reason not to brew in smaller quantities. Reading it also reminded me of the difference between US and UK gallons.

My final question arising from Andy's recipe concerned boiling. The gloop in kit beer is essentially flavoured malt extract and I don't have to boil that, so why should I boil neat malt extract? Has the kit stuff already been boiled? A bit of research found considerable variation of opinion but much of it seemed driven by what seems to me to be excessive concern about contamination. I can't believe there's any bacteria in a sealed jar of 70% sugar solution, so I'm not going to bother boiling it for ages to kill it. There's also some concern that boiling extract for too long can spoil the flavour. I read all I could find, looked at how much (little) heather I had in my garden, considered how cold I was getting whilst cutting it, and came up with the following:

  • Two 370 g jars malt extract
  • 350 g white sugar*
  • a couple of handfuls of heather, being 1.75 oz twigs plus flowers that were on them
  • water up to about 2 gallons (9-10 litres)
  • half a sachet of yeast salvaged from last kit beer

I planned to treat the twigs and flowers differently, so the first job was to pick all the flowers off the stalks. I then weighed the twiggy bits.

Little bits of heather

There wasn't much of either - only 1/2 oz of twigs at this stage, so I went out and got some more, then put those on to boil while I went out for more, until I had almost two ounces of twiggy bits plus the flowers that came off them. Since I had so little heather, I wanted to extract as much flavour from it as I possibly could, which I intended to do by boiling it to death. The flowers wouldn't stand up to that kind of treatment - it would ruin the delicate flavours - so I poured a little boiling water over them, covered to trap any volatile oils, and left them to stand for an hour or so. The first batch of twigs was boiled in a largeish pan of water for about half an hour, then the hot water added to the malt extract (already in the bucket) and the twigs returned to the pan. I then added the rest of the twigs and boiled the whole lot for another half hour, strained into the bucket, then boiled all the twigs again in more fresh water for somewhat longer - we were watching Dr Who - before adding the final batch of water to the bucket. At some point I also added the water from the flowers, then topped up with a mixture of hot and cold water - all poured through the heather twigs and flowers - until I had roughly two gallons (or possibly ten litres) of warm mixture.

Being in possession of a borrowed hydrometer, I decided to check the specific gravity at this point, to see where my sugar calculations had ended up. More to the point, I checked the potential alcohol content, which is marked on a different scale on the same instrument. I was aiming for 4.5 - 5%.

Hydrometer bobbing about in the wort

That would be about right then. Finally, I sprinkled on some yeast** and left it to get on with it. There was a reassuring froth on the top this morning, but what it'll taste like remains to be seen, or indeed tasted.


* Quantities of malt extract and sugar were calculated in the shop: How much gloop is in the kit? 1.5 kg. That's for 5 gallons, so scale down to 40%... that's 600 g. The jars are 370 g each, so I'll get two of those and reduce the sugar content to compensate (malt extract being essentially sugar). Sugar for 5 gallons is 1 kg, so 40% is 400 g... aim for 300 g... (back in the kitchen by now) oops, poured out too much - how much is that? 350 g. Oh, that'll do.

** Last time I made beer, I made bitter and lager in succession and kept the yeast going from one to the other, so I was able to salvage the sachet of yeast from the lager kit. I like the idea of keeping the yeast going all year, but I'm not sure whether I'll be brewing frequently enough for that.