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

Friday, 26 July 2013

Foraged Food Friday: Mustard greens

I spotted a few of these growing amongst my leeks and from the distinctive flowers thought, That looks like a brassica, I wonder what it is?

Black mustard (Brassica nigra) amongst the leeks

Googling wild brassicas turns out to be a poor strategy, as there are hundreds of them, so I turned to my guide to Britain's wildlife, plants and flowers (an actual book) and specifically the section on yellow flowers, up to four petals, regular flowers. As well as being helpfully organized, this book only includes more common plants, which narrows down the search in a way that's very useful if you happen to be looking for a common plant. I spotted a couple of likely looking contenders... could it be mustard? I nibbled one of the leaves - yes, definitely mustard!

We were having burgers for dinner (check out this recipe for burger buns - they're fab!) and I cautiously added a few chopped mustard leaves to the relish. To be honest, I could have been a bit bolder. I didn't think I was that keen on mustard, but maybe I was wrong!

Now, can anyone help me identify the smaller weeds growing in this bed?

Also harvesting this week:
Green laver (to dry)
Blackcurrants (for wine)

Also eating
Blackcurrant jam (from 2011)
Crab apple and rosemary jelly
Crab apple and rowan jelly

Also drinking
Elderflower champagne

Foraged food challenge summary page here.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Accepting that I can't do everything

... is not something I'm very good at. I was brought up to believe that I can do anything and this self-confidence is a gift for which I am very grateful to my parents. However, it's all to easy to go from anything to everything and I have a bad case of volunteeritis. When asked, and quite often even when not asked, I'm all too inclined to think, Yes, I could do that, and before I know it I've committed myself to yet another thing. This is even more of a problem now I don't have a full time job, so I tend to think I have a lot of time to spare.

So it is that I'm on the (proposed) village hall committee, I run book club and philosophy group, organize and promote live music events, and have a part time job. I also volunteered to help with the local school gardening club, but never quite made it there. This on top of growing our veg, cooking from scratch, foraging, making and mending where I can, and bigger projects that currently include replacing the conservatory roof and making solar panels. Perhaps it shouldn't surprise me that once again I have that familiar feeling of not being able to keep up with my own life.

A few recent conversations have shed some light on this. My sister and her family came to stay last week and chatting to my brother in law, I found him quite sympathetic to the over-commitment problem as he has the same tendency himself (with a full time job and two small children!) He commented that one contributing factor is having the attitude that you shouldn't complain about how other people are doing something if you're not willing to step up to the mark and do the job yourself. This is certainly something I agree with, and I can see times when, I could do that better, has played a part in my volunteering. My sister, less sympathetically, said, Well, you could do it all, with better time management. The most irritating thing about this comment is that it's true. It's an annoying habit my sister has - being right.

The third comment was made a couple of days later by my neighbour, who's known me for less than three years. We were talking about being argumentative, and I said that I no longer feel the need to react whenever someone says something I disagree with. He replied that I'm noticeably less abrasive than I was when he first knew me. Really? I've mellowed noticeably in such a short time? That's interesting.

On my recent excursion into my old life, I found the whole trip much more difficult than it would have been a few years ago. There was no time when travelling to Spain on my own would have been easy, but this time I felt I was having to make a big effort to wind myself up to a doing state of mind. I don't know whether that makes sense, but what I'm talking about is essentially stress levels. I used to operate at a higher level of tension all the time. This enabled me to get more done, and to manage difficult things, but also made me sharper and more abrasive in conversation. I believe I'm healthier and happier these days, too, and I'm sure being more relaxed is part of that.

So yes, my sister's right, I could fit more into my life if I really wanted to. The cost would be to wind myself up to operate at a higher stress level all the time, as I used to. When I look at it that way, I think that cost is too high. It's not so much that I can't do everything, the truth is that I don't want to.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Foraged Food Friday: Wild strawberries

It feels like cheating to feature strawberries picked in my garden, but most of the other plants I've foraged are growing in my garden, and these are definitely the wild variety, so here they are - wild strawberries.

Wild strawberries (Fragaria vesca)

What can I say about wild strawberries? Tiny fruit, divine flavour - a little taste of heaven.

Also harvesting this week:
Fat hen
Potatoes - Charlotte, Vale Emerald, and one Desiree plant that was growing in the compost heap.
Cultivated strawberries
The occasional raspberry
Cherries - just three so far, but so exciting! Of the six fruit trees I planted in spring 2011, this is the first to produce any fruit.

Also eating:
Crab apple and rosemary jelly
Blackcurrant sorbet
Damson and mascarpone ice cream

Also drinking:
Elderflower champagne
Bay herb ale
Heather ale

Foraged food challenge summary page here.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

A visit to my old life

Seven years ago, I was living in Northamptonshire and working as a Psychology lecturer, both of which I was very happy with. Then Ian landed his dream job, which happened to be in Cambridgeshire. I had to agree that it was worth moving for, and so we moved.

We didn't take to the East, and every trip back to the Midlands gave us pangs of homesickness. We didn't regret moving - it was the right decision at the time - but we never felt that we belonged in the East. It was only after we'd moved to Wales that we could visit the village where we used to live without wishing that we lived there still.

It was the same with work. Having left academia, when I had the chance to go to an academic conference with my new job it felt like going home. I was once again surrounded by people who'd been educated the same way as me which meant, to a very large extent, we had the same ways of thinking.

Over the past few months I've found myself missing that kind of interaction. I know lots of lovely, interesting people, but I can't just assume a certain body of knowledge or a certain way of thinking. With some trepidation, I booked a place at my favourite conference, the annual meeting of the European Society for Philosophy and Psychology, which was in southern Spain this year.

The conference was last week and my goodness, it was hard work! This was largely the challenge of travelling - and just getting by - in a foreign country where I don't speak the language. I also suffered terribly from the heat, which was entirely predictable, though I had expected the lecture theatres to be air conditioned, which they weren't.

So much for the practicalities, what about the conference Itself? It was excellent. It took me while to get back into it and at one point on the first day I put up my hand to ask a question only to find that my brain had ceased working, which was a little embarrassing. I'd also forgotten quite how difficult some Philosophy talks can be, especially when the speaker has a strong foreign accent and is simply reading out a written dissertation.

By the second day I was back into the swing of it. I could keep up with the talks, make intelligent contributions, and met interesting people, some of whom I went out for dinner with and had a lovely evening. Unfortunately I felt ill on the third day, whether from drinking tap water, eating salad, or just the heat, I don't know, but I recovered by the afternoon and attended talks on belief and rationality, the self, and self consciousness. This included a talk by one of the people I'd had dinner with that seemed to me an example of the best that philosophy can offer science - a, What exactly do you mean by that?

The final day passed in similar fashion, with talks on what we mean when we say how big something is, on metaphor, and a very entertaining session on sport psychology. I thoroughly enjoyed it, in spite of the heat, but I didn't get that sense of homecoming that I'd had before. Whilst I can participate in an academic conference and enjoy it very much, I no longer feel part of that world any more.

Really, this is the best possible outcome. I had a good time but it didn't make me want to go back to my old life. I'm not sure whether I'll go to another conference. It was a huge effort and the cost wasn't insignificant, either. It took ten weeks of my little part time job to pay for this. Worth it to learn that I don't want to go back to my old life, but I'm not sure whether it would be worth going again. Maybe I'll change my mind in a year or two. As with the village I used to live in, I can go back for a visit and feel happy to come home again.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Foraged Food Friday: Elderflower champagne

I've made (or at least started) a few alcoholic drinks with foraged ingredients this year, but haven't written about them yet because I'm saving them. This is partly because they keep well, so can be saved for leaner times, and partly because it amuses me to think of ending the year with a month or two of posts about booze every week. I'm making an exception for elderflower champagne because for me, it's an essentially summery drink. I tried keeping some to let more of the sugar convert to alcohol, but I didn't like it so much. I actually prefer this drink light and sweet, so that's how I'm drinking it this year.

A couple of weeks ago we headed east to see friends and I couldn't help noticing that the English countryside was filled with frothy elderflowers, whilst those at home were not yet out. Knowing that I'd be away this week (just got back this morning) and that my sister and her family are coming to stay tomorrow, it seemed worthwhile picking some to start the champagne so that it would be ready in time for guests, rather than waiting until the flowers closer to home were out. The only trouble was, how to get them home? I formulated a cunning plan...

On the way back from our trip, whilst Ian stopped for a work appointment, I ventured into the Warwickshire countryside in search of flowers. It didn't take long to find some, then I put my plan into action. Some four or five hours later, the flowers seemed relatively unscathed by their journey (Pebble checked them for me).

A bag of elderflowers

And the secret to this triumph of transportation?

More checking required, evidently

I'd taken some home brew with me to share with friends over the weekend, and so had some empty bottles to bring back. I filled a couple of them with water then cut the flower stalks long and stuffed as many as I could into the bottle, so there wouldn't be space for the water to escape. Seemed to work pretty well.

Looking up how I made elderflower champagne in previous years, I see that I bottled it almost as soon as it had started fermenting. No wonder it exploded! With a bit of experience of beer-making under my belt, I decided to treat it more like beer this year, which is to say that I left it in the bucket until it had calmed down a bit - actually almost a week - then added a little extra sugar to the bottles. To complicate matters, I had enough flowers (27) for more than a small bucketful of champagne, but not enough to use the five gallon bucket. I started the mixture fermenting in the small bucket (two gallons/ten litres-ish), including three small lemons and one kilo of sugar, then diluted with sugary water at bottling time. The syrup was 100 g of sugar to the litre (that's made up to a litre, not a whole litre of water) and about one third of this and two thirds of the elderflower mix in each bottle. The aim was to make the same number of half-litre bottles as I'd had flowers, but I ended up with 28 because the bucket size is a bit approximate.

Once bottled, it just needed leaving for a week or so, for the secondary fermentation, during which time I was away. I showed Ian where the bottles were in case he needed to depressurise them*, but failed to mention any criteria for deciding whether this needed doing or not. Scarred by past experiences of exploding bottles, he depressurised them after a few days anyway. At least, he did most of them, but got fed up before he finished, so a few were untouched.

By way of testing, I tried one this evening. It tasted good, but lacked the sparkle I've come to expect with this drink. Frankly, it was a bit flat. I'm just hoping that the ones that weren't depressurised (I quizzed Ian on the subject after testing) will be fizzier, and/or the remaining bottles will acquire more fizz over time.


* To avoid shards of glass flying everywhere, I'm sticking to plastic (PET) bottles of the kind fizzy drinks come in. These have screw caps, which makes it easy to release pressure and reseal if necessary.

Also harvesting this week:
Fat Hen
Pak choi

Also eating:
Dulse (from dried)

Foraged food challenge summary page here.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Foraged Food Friday: Fat hen

Whilst out walking with a friend last week, I spotted a familiar plant and said to her, I really should know what that is. A few days later, browsing the Guardian Forager's calendar, I picked on Fat hen to look up. Aha! The same plant! That one didn't take long to resolve.

Fat hen (Chenopodium album) growing by the roadside.

This very common plant has many names, including Lamb's quarters in the US, and I was somewhat tempted to choose Dirty Dick from the available options, especially as Fat hen can also apply to other, related species. However, I'll stick with Fat hen mainly because I've heard of it being eaten, and I think I've a fair chance of remembering it.

This is described as a leaf vegetable somewhat similar to spinach, so I decided to make soup out of it and gathered a fair-ish quantity from the roadside where I first spotted it. Not the ideal place for foraging, but I couldn't be bothered to walk any further. I tried to minimise other ingredients so as to get a good idea of how the new food tastes, but even so I ended up with onion, chicken stock, and a spoonful of rather elderly mascarpone cheese in my soup. These might have been responsible for the delicious flavour, but I'm inclined to attribute it to the fat hen. It's a milder flavour than spinach and the leaves are a little more robust, so don't cook down to quite such a soggy much, even in soup. I will definitely be cooking this again.

Soup. Tasted better than it looks.

Also harvesting this week:
Elderflowers (to make champagne)
Bracken (there are hardly any of the fiddleheads left now)
Nettles (also at the end of the season - they're mostly flowering)
Plantain flower heads (in chicken stock)
Pak choi

Also eating:

Also drinking:
Dandelion tea
Bay herb ale
Heather ale

Foraged food challenge summary page here.