About this blog

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

Sunday 27 July 2014

Thoughts on the 5/2 diet: Fasting is not for me.

At the beginning of this month, I reviewed our poor diet and decided to give the 5/2 diet a try. This means severely restricting calories - fasting - on two days of the week, not necessarily consecutively, and eating what you like on the other five days. Yesterday was my sixth fasting day, having missed one when relatives were visiting.

It wasn't too bad to start with. Of course I was hungry, but nothing I couldn't live with. I tweaked things slightly and by the third fast it seemed quite do-able. I reduced my breakfast slightly (it's usually about 600 calories on its own) and delayed it until midday, allowed myself three cups of tea throughout the day, and ate a high-protein snack, such as a boiled egg, at about 6pm. There were periods of intense hunger between for about an hour prior to eating, but I thought that as I got used to it, that would get easier.

Actually, it didn't; it got worse. I found I was spending more and more of the day feeling painfully hungry, completely fixated on food, unable to concentrate on anything, and seriously irritable. Furthermore, I didn't like the effect it was having on me the rest of the time: I turned into a dieter.

I have never in my life been a dieter. My mother believed that we should listen to our bodies' signals about when and what to eat. She encouraged us to try new foods, but never forced us to eat things we didn't like or to finish a plate of food if we were full. She didn't keep sweets in the house, and cakes and ice cream were special treats, so our food choices weren't completely unrestricted, but we had a lot of choice in what we ate. I have grown into an adult who, from time to time, craves spinach (or nettles, if that's what's available).

One comment about the benefits of the 5/2 diet is that it teaches you what it feels like to be hungry, so you can distinguish it from wanting food for other reasons. I couldn't relate to this; I know what it's like to be hungry, and I mostly don't eat for other reasons. I don't want to sound holier-than-thou about this, and I do eat food just because it's delicious, but I can take a large bar of chocolate from the cupboard, eat four squares, and leave the rest sitting on the table in front of me.

This changed when I started fasting. On non-fast days, I felt drawn to food in a new way. I've observed this in friends, but I've never before felt the compulsion to eat food just because it's there. What I learnt from fasting was not what hunger feels like, but the desire to overeat, because you never know when food might be in short supply again, so you'd better build up your reserves just in case. OK, that second part isn't conscious, but I assume it's the survival strategy underlying that desire.

I don't like being a dieter. I eat when I'm hungry and I stop eating when I'm full (or sometimes before, if I didn't prepare enough food). My food intake is not completely unrestricted - I'll resist eating something so I can use it for dinner tomorrow, for example - but I don't force myself to feel hungry. I live in a world of relatively plentiful food and I'm well adapted to it. I'd like to keep it that way. My experiment with fasting ended with an ice cream in the middle of yesterday afternoon, and I felt so much better for it!

Friday 25 July 2014

Solar panels - a box

This has taken me longer than it might have done because I keep getting distracted by things like gardening and visiting relatives. Also, I had a nagging feeling that my design, such as it is, probably isn't very good. A friend recommended someone who could make a nice aluminium case, If you want to spend a bit of money. Well, yes, I'm sure an aluminium case would be good, but I don't want to spend money. Maybe I could treat mine as temporary, and upgrade sometime when we do have money to spend. At that point I started feeling better; it doesn't matter if my design's not very good, it doesn't have to be the last word on the subject.

Here we go, then. Not wanting to spend money on materials if I can help it, my box is made principally from old floorboards. I used lengths of 2x2 for the corners - I can't remember what we bought that for, but we evidently didn't use it. I kept the old radiator brackets when we took the radiators off the wall, so I can re-use those, too. Here's the frame, with brackets in place:

Framework of case for the first solar panel

The gap in one side is not for want of a long enough floorboard, it is part of the design. If water gets into the panel we'll get condensation all over the glass, which won't help efficiency, so I'd like to be able to let water vapour out, hence the vent. I don't want it open all the time, because air flow across the radiator isn't good for efficiency either, so I'll fit a sliding piece over the gap. That means ventilation will have to be manual, but it's better than permanently open.

At this point I would very much like to have put the radiator and glass in place to make sure they fitted. However, both these items were in service as a very basic solar panel which I didn't want to take apart. To move the radiator, particularly, would involve draining the system. Both items are heavy and unwieldy, and at that time, an awkward flight of steps away from the frame.

Ho hum, I'd just have to trust my measurements. This was unfortunate, as it was very difficult to measure things up there on the steep, slippery bank, especially the back of a radiator that was lying on the ground under a sheet of glass.

The next step was to insulate. I taped sheets of radiator backing between the brackets. This is the stuff that you can put behind radiators to reduce the heat lost to the wall, so ideal for this purpose. My friend Ellie gave me one sheet and the other I acquired from goodness knows where. I then turned the box over and added a layer of sheep's wool insulation, left over from insulating under the floors.

I retrieved a sheet of plywood that used to be the back of a fitted wardrobe. It was damp from standing against the workshop wall, so I left it in the sun to dry out for a bit. Once it was dry I cut it to size - most pleasingly, it was just long enough for the box. That's funny, I thought that last time I measured it, it was just too short. Well, it was hard to get at in amongst all the clutter in the workshop - I must have made a mistake. Here's the underside of box, with plywood in place:

Box from beneath

Before dinner yesterday, I applied creosote to protect the woodwork, particularly the legs. I put a coat over the plywood as well, even though it's been varnished before so it wasn't absorbed in most places. I'm sure it'll dry out eventually.

By this morning, there was really nothing left to do before assembling the pieces, which had to be done on the bank because the assembled panel would be too heavy to move. I woke up early, which was nice as I could make a start before the sun got high. I had to drain the system first, which is a pain because it needs the valve to be open but the pump off, which means disconnecting the wires to the pump. I remembered this detail just as I was applying flux to a solder joint, but I'm getting ahead of myself. Here's the insulated box in the early morning sunlight, with the glass ready to be fitted.

Hmm, that doesn't look quite right...

Pebble confirmed the matter: The glass doesn't fit. Oh, &*%#!

I went indoors and had breakfast. And tea. Tea makes things better. I realised that it doesn't actually matter very much if the glass sticks out a bit. I cut a couple of notches in the frame to accommodate the window frame, and left it at that. I'm sure I can stuff something into the small gap between the wood and the glass, so I don't have excessive ventilation.

Next, I checked that the radiator fitted onto the brackets. At first I thought they didn't line up, but it was just the angle of the bank, and my anxiety primed by the window measurement error. The radiator does fit, but getting it into position was one hell of a job. It's big and heavy. The bank is steep and slippery. It's not possible to see either of the two parts I'm trying to fit together at the time I'm manoeuvring them. This would have been easier with two people, but Ian was out driving a bus, and I wanted to get the job done so I could catch some of the sun's rays today.

Once I'd managed to get the radiator onto its brackets, and determined that it does fit quite nicely, actually, I marked positions of holes for the pipes. Radiator was removed and holes were drilled, then the box needed moving into position. This wasn't too difficult without the weight of the radiator, but I did need to fetch some bricks to go under one of the legs.

Before putting the radiator back in the box, I stuffed bits of wool into each end of the tubes on the back. This way, the fins will provide additional insulation instead of conducting heat away from the radiator, as they were designed to. I then fitted the radiator onto its brackets (which was a lot easier second time around), threaded the pipes through the holes I'd drilled and screwed up the fittings (thanks for the foresight to use compression fittings there, Dad), and reconnected my temporary plumbing. After mopping off and leaving it to dry a little (radiator not entirely empty) I put the glass back on.

While I had the system drained, there was one more job to do. At the end of the plumbing job, I was left with one tiny leak. It really was tiny and we were OK living with it for a while, but it should be fixed. I thought I'd have to take it apart and start from scratch, which proved almost impossible, but on the advice of blokes in the pub I learnt that it's possible to redo solder joints without taking them apart, so that's what I tried today. I'm not 100% sure, but I think I've fixed it. If it is still dripping, it's doing so far more slowly than it was before.

Plumbing concluded, I refilled the system. My temporary connections out on the bank are rather more leaky than they were before I took them apart and put them back together again. I can cope with a few drips, but I'll have to do those properly before too long. Nonetheless, I once again have a working solar panel, hopefully considerably more effective than it was before. Here it is, the nearly-finished solar panel:

Solar panel, functional again after only 8 hours disconnected, and, as far as we can tell from the temperature of the pipes, as much more effective as hoped.

I say nearly finished because there are a few bits and pieces still to do. It could do with a bit more creosote on the woodwork that's immediately under the glass and I haven't finished the sliding cover yet. It's also not in its final position, because positioning is a job in itself. Not the next job, though. The next job is the fun bit: The automatic pump controller.

Wednesday 23 July 2014

July garden

It's been a couple of months since I last posted a garden update. Would you like a look around... see how things are doing?

Starting in the greenhouse (well it's right outside the back door - it's the easiest place to start), the tomatoes are looking good.

I do wonder why I grow tomatoes on the short side of the greenhouse

That is to say, the tomato plants are looking healthy. There's not a huge amount of fruit yet, and what's there is still very green.

The cucumber plant that Barbara gave me is threatening to take over the greenhouse, if not the world. It has a number of little cucumbers that are looking very promising.

It's two days after I took that photo and that cucumber's at least twice the size

On the other side of the greenhouse, the basil's doing very well. I'll have enough to make a decent batch of pesto, if I can figure out how best to store it.

In sharp contrast, the purslane and Welsh onions that I planted by the patio seem to have hardly grown at all.

Unimpressive purslane

It's very hard to water that bed, as the water tends to run straight off the surface. It doesn't help that the cat sits on it, either.

Moving swiftly on, the sweetcorn appears to be developing nicely.

Is that a tassel in there?

I've never grown sweetcorn before so I don't know what to expect, but that looks quite promising to me.

The squash are also doing their thing, and producing little fruits. I hope those remain uneaten long enough to turn into bigger fruits.

Tiny little squash

The next bed is other and I'm loving this bed at the moment because it's looking like a proper veg patch.

Veg, various

In the foreground/right of the picture is chard. This is the first time I've grown it and I'm pleased with how it's doing. It tastes OK, too, though as leafy greens go, I prefer both spinach and pak choi. Speaking of which...

Flowering pak choi. Also nasturtiums.

... most of the pak choi I planted is now bolting, but that's OK because...

Not-flowering pak choi

... there are volunteers popping up all over the place, so I have plenty to keep me going.

Next along from the chard is fennel, the ferny leaves of which are quite hard to see in the picture. The bases are fattening up encouragingly. Beyond those are celery, which are not fattening up much at all. The cabbages just behind are looking healthy, though. I'm not sure whether I'm seeing the first signs of heads forming in them, or whether that's just wishful thinking. The next section of plants has the bolted pak choi interspersed with leeks, which are doing quite well, and three courgette plants, which are a little behind the squash, but showing promise.

There've been a couple of flowers so far, but no fruit yet.

There are more leeks along the edge of the final section, far left of the photo, but they're not doing so well because Pebble keeps lying on them. I don't think she's particularly attracted to leeks, but she likes to lie in the shade of the parsnips, and that's where the leeks are.

The parsnips are those tall, bright green plants at the left/back of the other bed. They're magnificent! They already have large roots, but I'll hold off until after the first frost before harvesting any. Probably.

Top of parsnip. I hope I'm not attracting every carrot fly in the village by poking these.

Before leaving this bed, I have to show you the sugar beet that I planted early, for seed.

There's sugar beet in there somewhere

I know I'm not giving it the best chance by allowing all those weeds to grow, but I do so love forget-me-nots! In contrast, the sugar beet that I planted next door is racing away. I took one photo on the 6th July...

Sugar beet in early July

... and another three weeks later, on 21st July.

Sugar beet in late July

Hasn't it grown! I've nibbled the odd leaf and they're really nice. Not exactly sweet, but less bitter than some, and tender. If I do manage to get any seeds, I might grow some of this for salad leaves. As to the main crop, I'm not sure when to harvest it. Perhaps I'll wait for the first frost, as for parsnips.

Are you bored yet? You can skip to the end if you like - there are flowers. If you're still interested, we'll head for the downstairs garden now.

The first bed we come to is the potato patch.

Potatoes. Yes, all of it.

I know a large section of that bed looks like it's just weeds (shepherd's purse - they were very pretty when they were in flower) but there are potatoes in there too. At least, I hope there are. I've been harvesting the first earlies for some time, but haven't touched the main crop yet.

In the next bed are field beans (like broad beans but smaller). Those from the first sowing that survived the frost are just about ready to harvest now.

Lots of small-ish bean pods

I picked the first few of these yesterday. Though the pods are small, they're well filled with beans, which is a huge improvement on the broad beans I've grown in the last two years. I'll see how the rest of the harvest goes, but I think I'll be sticking with these.

I've been harvesting peas for some time now - some have even gone in the freezer - and decided that it's time to leave the rest of the early varieties, Oskar and Charmette, for seed...

I think these are Oskar, ripening nicely

... as the Kelvedon Wonder are now ready to pick.

Kelvedon Wonder peas. These are nothing special, but they do grow well.

I'm still trying to persuade the Lord Leicester peas to climb, but they're turning their noses up at my chain link fence. The nasturtiums are looking good, though.

The nasturtiums looked a little lost after I pulled out all the weeds that were propping them up.

Just across from these are the wigwams of climbing beans, with squash underneath.

Three squash, two wigwams of beans

Both the circles of french beans - District Nurse - are doing well, but the runner beans in the middle are doing nothing. I think they may have been eaten. Never mind, for green beans the french ones are just as good.

Do have a closer look at that leek flower! (If you do want a closer look, there are bigger copies of most of the flower pictures, if you click on them.)

Leek flower looking much pinker than I expected

Isn't it pretty? I think the celery flowers are rather charming, too. I may put some in the flower border next year.

Celery: Not much cop as a vegetable, but pretty when flowering.

The flower border itself is scruffy, but rather pretty...

... and it has roses.

The sweet peas over by the fence are just starting to flower.

My favourite, though, is a wild flower growing amongst the peas and beans.

Viola tricolor, also known as wild pansy or heartsease.

Sunday 20 July 2014

Parsnip fruit

I've kept four of last year's parsnips in the ground to produce seeds for next year. They've grown big and flowered, and mostly keep falling over when it's windy because the ground's too soft.

Parsnip plants leaning on each other, as I try to keep them upright

After the flowers and before the seeds, we have little green fruit.

Parsnip fruit

Since the seeds have an interesting flavour - sort of spicy, aniseedy - I tried one of the fruit. Wow! They're the same, but much stronger. There are plenty to spare, so I thought I might do something with some of them, but what? I considered crystallizing, as I did with the similar-tasting (and related) Alexanders, but I can't really be bothered. Instead, I went for the lazy option:

Parsnip fruit in vodka

I stripped a few heads and put the fruit in vodka. If I added sugar, I imagine this could make a pretty good liqueur, but I'm not adding it yet. Firstly, it would probably reduce the effectiveness of flavour extraction, and secondly, this might go well with lemonade, in which case sugar would be unnecessary, and possibly excessive. I can always add it at time of drinking if I want to.

Monday 14 July 2014

Blackcurrant cordial

OK, this took me a little longer to get round to as it wasn't just a matter of editing my previous post with the quantity of sugar used. Top tip: If your method of separating juice from fruit pulp involves hanging a jelly bag up by a piece of string, maybe think twice about processing eleven pounds of fruit in one go.

There was a bag of stewed blackcurrants hanging from this string before it broke

There was a lot of cleaning up to do after that. There were even splashes of blackcurrant juice on the ceiling.

At this point I remembered that I do actually have a small wine press in a cupboard in the store room. Although missing a tube to convey juice into a container, it does have one very useful feature: A splash guard. You might well ask why I didn't use this in the first place. So might I.

A much tidier method of extracting juice from blackcurrants

I can't tell you how much juice I extracted from my 11 lb 4 oz of fruit because I didn't measure it before I added the sugar. I stirred in 1 kg sugar, which tasted about right, then bottled it. The final count comes to 3 ½ litres of cordial, most of which is now in the freezer, because I don't add enough sugar to act as a preservative.

Speaking of sugar, and because we were talking about the anti sugar campaign recently, I thought I'd work out the sugar content per drink. It's a fairly strong cordial, so a suitable dilution is about one in ten, making a total of 35 litres of made up drink. One drink is about 250 ml, so that's 140 drinks in total. One kilo of sugar divided by 140 drinks is 7.1 g added sugar per drink. Blackcurrants contain about 6% sugar so... oh, I'm going to have to convert units to do this bit... 11 lb 4 oz is 5.1 kg, 6% of 5.1 kg is 307 g, divided by 140 drinks, is 2.2 g per drink. If I managed to extract all the sugar from the currents, that's a total of 9.3 g sugar per drink, or 3.7 g per 100g. I include that last measure for comparison with a recent survey of commercial soft drinks.

Thursday 10 July 2014

Blackcurrant harvest; wine and cordial

The blackcurrant bushes have done me proud yet again.

This is not all of the blackcurrants, oh no.

I can take no credit for this. The bushes were here before we arrived and I've done nothing to them apart from harvest the ever increasing crop of big, dark, luscious fruit. So far this year I have used almost 6 lb for wine and over 11 lb for cordial, and there are still more currants on the bushes.

For the record (my record, that is - last year's blackcurrant wine is a bit rough, but I didn't take good notes, so I'm not sure why. I suspect I left it in the bucket too long), I made wine as follows: 3 lb 4 oz of currants picked on Wednesday 2nd July. I ran out of time to pick more, so started the wine then. Currants into bucket, followed by boiling water and 1 lb sugar. Currants mashed with potato masher. Cold water added up to somewhat less than a gallon, then yeast leftover from elderflower champagne, which went everywhere because I inverted the bottle a few times, to stir up the yeast from the bottom. That got going nicely, then on Friday I picked another 2 lb 11 oz of currants, making 5 lb 15 oz in total. I added these to the bucket and mashed. They didn't get the sterilizing effect of the boiling water because the yeast was already in the bucket, so I just had to hope that the yeast was strong enough by that time to smother anything else. More sugar added up to 4 lb in total. Actually, I can't remember how much I added the first time, just the total, but I can remember that I didn't have enough white granulated, so this included some icing sugar and some light brown sugar too. Mash again and add water up to about 2 gallons. On Monday, i.e. after an average of four days, I transferred the liquid to sterilized demijohns using the two jug method.

The two jug method. Yes, it's messy.

This method consists of scooping liquid out of the bucket with one jug then straining through a sieve into the other jug, from which it is poured into the demijohns. Here they are full, after some tidying up:

I do love the sight of demijohns full of wine-in-the-making

These stayed in the kitchen bubbling for a few days before I took them down to the cooler, darker store room.

As for the cordial, I picked the currants for that today. I spent a couple of hours picking 8 lb currants this afternoon, then it was time to come in and get dinner. I put those in the jamming kettle with a very little water, and brought to a low simmer. I left these on a very low heat during dinner, to evaporate some of the water. After dinner, I went out to pick some more (still plenty of daylight!) and discovered how much faster I can pick when the air is thick with tiny creatures that all want to suck my blood. It did take a lot longer when I got them indoors, though, picking out all the stalks, leaves and snail poo, before I added those to the pan as well. The whole lot's still simmering gently as I write this. The next step is to separate juice from pulp, and I'm wondering whether the bowl I usually use will be big enough for all that juice. Tomorrow I'll add sugar, and edit this post to record how much.

Tuesday 8 July 2014

Five a Day - How?

Sorry, this is another post about diet - I'm a little obsessed at the moment. I'm still thinking about the government advice to get five portions of fruit and veg per day, with a portion being 80 g, or about 3 oz. Let's look at what I ate yesterday.

I started with my usual breakfast of muesli, made up of porridge oats, fruit and a few nuts. I'm not sure whether oats count - they are a grain, not a vegetable - but I have about 70 g, so that's almost a portion if they do count. I had a small handful of raspberries from the garden - about an ounce, so nowhere near a portion.

For lunch, I had a salad of peas fresh from the garden with some marsh samphire that I picked the other day, plus a few herbs with an oil and vinegar dressing. Because I'm keeping track of what I harvest from the garden, I weighed the peas: 2 oz, so rather less than a portion. I didn't weigh the samphire, but I doubt it was an ounce. Between them, barely one portion. I also had a little polenta, because I'm experimenting with alternatives to bread.

Dinner was a big heap of cheesy mashed potatoes with chard. I harvested 10 ½ oz potatoes, but they got mixed up with the ones in the cupboard so I'm not sure how many I actually ate. It could have been as much as 9 oz. Whether that counts as three portions or not is contentious. Officially, potatoes don't count, but I heard an interview with someone involved in issuing the advice, who said this was mainly because they were worried that people would just eat lots of chips and think that was healthy. It's sad that such a lack of common sense is assumed, and also sad that they were probably right. The chard was 2 ½ oz - barely a portion - and I had a glass of tomato juice, which also counts as one.

Counting strictly, I had barely one portion of veg at lunch and barely two at dinner, including the juice. That's somewhat short of three. If I include the potatoes and oats I get to seven, a target supported by recent research. The thing is, this is pretty much everything I ate yesterday, and it all looks healthy to me. The only other foods I had in any quantity were dairy: Cheese, probably about three ounces, and half a pint or so of milk. If I didn't count the potatoes, as advised, how would I get to my five portions?

I found the following on the NHS website:

Having a sliced banana with your morning cereal is a quick way to get one portion. Swap your mid-morning biscuit for a tangerine, and add a side salad to your lunch. Have a portion of vegetables with dinner, and snack on dried fruit in the evening to reach your five a day.
That suggestion adds two snacks to my usual meal plan, and both are fruit, so relatively high in sugar. That doesn't sound like an ideal adjustment to my diet.

I'm curious - do you monitor your fruit and veg intake, and if so do you get five a day? How?

Saturday 5 July 2014

Poor diet

You'd think, what with foraging and growing vegetables, that my diet would be pretty healthy, wouldn't you? Well, I kind of assumed that. The thing is, foraging takes a lot of time and the garden isn't at its most productive in the spring.

Over the last six months or so, I've had the nagging awareness that my health is not at its best. That period started in the middle of winter, when I usually have SAD, so I expected to get better with spring, but it didn't really happen. I'm not ill as such, but my energy and motivation are low. The clearest sign that's something's not quite right is in my skin: It's in generally poor condition and it's not healing quickly after cuts and, currently, insect bites.

The other day, I looked up what counts as a portion of vegetables and was shocked to realise that I'm not even getting the government recommended five portions of fruit and veg a day. That's really not very good. There are several reasons for this. One is that Ian does not have a good relationship with food.

Ian's a supertaster, which means that many flavours that are unremarkable or pleasant to me, are seriously unpleasant to him. I persuaded him to try a slice of cucumber the other day - surely a food so bland that it couldn't be offensive. It was a distressing experience for him... How can you eat this? In spite of his attempts to wash it away with a cup of tea, the nasty taste stayed with him for a good fifteen minutes. A lifetime of this, combined with lack of understanding from others (imagine being branded a fussy eater for rejecting something so bitter that you can't imagine anyone wanting to eat it), has left him with a very restricted diet and a reluctance to try new foods. Basically, he doesn't like vegetables.

During the hungry gap - that period in late spring when there's not much in the garden - I would usually treat myself to expensive, shop-bought vegetables, particularly asparagus. One day... one day... I shall harvest asparagus from my garden, and this will fill the gap between the end of the purple sprouting broccoli and the start of the broad beans and peas. In the meantime, asparagus costs money, and money has been in short supply lately. It is the lot of a freelancer to have periods of feast and famine, and the last six months have been a famine, almost literally. The likes of asparagus have been classified as expensive luxury and hence off the menu.

I can cook cheaply, I really can. I can even cook cheaply for someone who can't contemplate a main meal that doesn't include meat, and whose acceptable side vegetables are peas, carrots, and baked beans. What I struggle to do is cook cheap, healthy food, with those restrictions, during the hungry gap. As I discovered when I looked into the £1 a day challenge, refined carbohydrates are cheap. When I examine our recent diet, I find that it does contain a lot of wheat.

At the same time as I was having these thoughts about diet, we watched a documentary about the effects of fasting on health. I've never been a fan of dieting, but we were both very impressed by the health benefits reported, so alongside looking for alternatives to bread and pasta, we've decided to give the 5/2 diet a go. This is five days a week of eating what you like, and two days of eating no more than 600 calories. If nothing else, the simple observation that we did not evolve in an environment that offered a steady supply of food makes it plausible that the human body would be well adapted to a feast and fast pattern of eating.

For me, the main appeal is the health benefit, not weight loss. As a bonus, this saves the cost of two main meals a week. With the money we save, perhaps we can afford healthier food the rest of the time.