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

Friday, 29 January 2016

A little progress on the fireplace

I've been stalling on plastering the fireplace because of that wire. I feel I really should do something to fix it in place, at least. Even if it doesn't need protection, it's going to be easier to plaster if it's fixed. This afternoon I went downstairs to see what kind of rubbish we might have available. I found some bits of - I think Land Rover - head lining. Lightweight, insulating type stuff, easy to cut. I then sought out some staples that Ian salvaged from some pallets he broke up for firewood. They're flimsy things, but I can't find the longer panel pins that I'm sure we've got somewhere.

Anyway, I cut some strips of the stuff and managed to get two of them pinned to the wall. Only about a dozen staples were sacrificed in the process. I gave up on the third strip, but Ian pointed out that the wire should be fixed quite firmly at the bottom, because it's likely to get pulled. If it breaks up all the plaster, that would be quite annoying.

Wire, sort-of fixed

For the lower fixing, I smacked a tapered bit of firewood into a gap between the bricks and broke it off, then screwed an eyelet it. It was just the right size for the wire but, of course, far too small for the plug on the end of it. I had to pull apart the connection (on which Ian had fixed the insulation problem), then join it back together and re-do all that fiddly insulation.

Wire going through eyelet, which will hopefully stop it pulling on the plaster.

Now I have no excuse not to do the plastering.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

A walk in the woods

The sun was shining this morning, so I abandoned the housework, ignored Ian's sensible advice to get some firewood in before the forecast rain this afternoon, and drove out to some nearby woodlands. These are mostly coniferous plantations, but there's an area of beech trees where I've found oyster mushrooms before, and I was hoping I might find some today.

As well as recent logging, some trees have blown down at the road edge of the woodland. Not all of them actually fell over.

The ones that were down have been tidied up, and I see that they've cut one of the stumps into a seat.

The view from this seat isn't great at the moment, but I'm sure it will be in time.

Walking through the conifers, I catch my first glimpse of the beech trees.

Now to start looking for oyster mushrooms, and any others I can identify. These might have been oysters once, but I don't fancy them now.

These are not oysters...

... which is fine, because they're all the way up there.

This is more like it!

They're not in the first flush of youth, and are a little nibbled round the edges, but they'll do nicely.

After this, my finds were of photogenic, rather than of culinary value, and no, I don't know what most of them are.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

George and sunshine

Today I am mostly feeling sleepy, and not at all like writing. Have some pictures of George instead. I took these a week ago - it seems to have been sunny that day, though it's hard to imagine that now.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Insulation, insulation, insulation

I haven't time to write much today, so here's a post that's been sitting around in the drafts folder since the end of April:

Last time I wrote about the solar panels, they were installed, just about finished, and I was waiting for sunshine. That arrived about a week later and I got very excited to see how the panels would perform. They (at least, the booster panel, where the sensor is) got hot very effectively, but the temperature drop between panel and tank was so great that I started to suspect that the water wasn't circulating at all. I wondered whether there was something wrong with the valve I'd replaced - maybe I'd wired it up the wrong way round? I stood on a ladder and, reaching into the top of the cupboard, played with the connections, accidentally touched them together, and with a flash and a bang the whole thing stopped working.

I was sure I'd blown up the pump, but a visiting friend poked around with a multimeter and tracked down the fault to the relay. It was still switching, which had me thinking it was fine, but he explained that I could have burnt out the contacts within the switch. Thanks, Adrian! In fact, when I prepared to replace the relay, I found the fault was even simpler than that. The solder had melted on one of the connections and a wire had come loose, so that was easy to fix.

So much for all that, what was the problem with the system? If the panels were getting hot, why was no heat reaching the house? I concluded eventually that the water was circulating and it was a matter of losing all the heat en route: not enough insulation. Since I was dubious about my boxing in of the pipes across the conservatory, that seemed the most likely place for heat loss. On the other hand, it would also be the most difficult to improve, so I did further testing first. I added a long wire to the third temperature sensor and moved it to each end of the conservatory pipes in turn. To my surprise, they didn't seem to be losing much heat at all across that distance.

Where next, then? I took the sensor out to the booster panel and tested the temperature as the pipe left the box: Almost 20 degrees lower than the temperature inside the panel. What? How about just inside the box, then? Just the same. How about in exactly the same place as the main sensor? Maybe this sensor isn't working properly. No, it is working - same reading for the two sensors in the same place. OK, I really was losing 20 degrees between the point where the pipe left the collector (black painted aluminium sheet) and the point where it left the box. That was about 18 inches! Also, the pipe ran through sheep's wool insulation, and I'd expect the space in the box to be fairly warm, anyway. Apparently not. I added lots of insulation to that short piece of pipe.

Extra insulation, showing mostly as a bulge in the silver sheet

On testing, that reduced the heat loss from about 20 degrees to about 10. Good, but still room for improvement. Now knowing how much impact a short stretch of pipe can have, I turned my attention to where the pipes go under the conservatory roof.

The draft post ends here. I stuffed a load of insulation around the pipes under the roof. It didn't make much difference. That's probably all you need to know about that. There's still work to be done to improve the insulation, but I'm not sure where. That's a job for another day, preferably a sunny one so I can test things.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Tackling the fireplace

You remember I said that I'd fix up the fireplace properly after Christmas? If you've been here a while and you have an exceptionally good memory, you might remember. Well, I didn't say which Christmas, did I?

It's one of those jobs that generates other jobs on the way. I did mortar the arch bricks in place - it's not a brilliant job, but it looks OK - and stuffed some stones into the gap above. I also fixed the mantelpiece to the wall. That job suffered a setback when the gimlet handle broke as I was trying to get it out of the wood. That's a pretty solid old bit of wood, evidently! Then there was an even longer delay while I thought about the position of our speakers.

Hitherto, they'd been either side of the sofa, on the floor, which I didn't think was a very good place for them. I thought they'd be better the other side of the room, facing the sofa. Since we plug the computer into the stereo when we watch telly, and that sits on the coffee table by the sofa, that would mean getting a wire from one side of the room to the other. Ian didn't think it was a good idea, so I could expect no help from him. One day when he was out, I moved furniture (that would have been so much easier with two of us!), moved the stereo and speakers, and ran a wire around the doorway and fireplace. Ian now thinks the sound is much better, but would like me to fix the connection where I didn't insulate it adequately and it's short-circuiting. Urgh.

Anyway, I now have a wire running round the fireplace, ready to be buried in the plaster when I get to doing that bit. I did buy some all-purpose plaster, but when I looked at the little bag I'd bought, and looked at the thickness of the plaster I needed to match, I realised I didn't have anywhere near enough. I could do with something to get some bulk on the wall, under a top layer.

Since then, I've built little brick pillars for the solar panels, and have a great deal of lime and a little sand left over. I've heard that lime mortar is made by just mixing these two, with a little water, so today I did that. I remember the ratio was 3:1, but I think that was dry weight, and the sand's been sitting outside in the rain, so I have no way of knowing what it would weigh dry. Also, I'd rather not introduce either of these to my kitchen scales. I just added lime to sand until it looked about right. The sand was already wet enough that I didn't need water, but there was one other ingredient. Traditionally, hair was added to lime mortar to strengthen it, and the bathroom bin was full of hair, so I cut some up and mixed that in, too. Oh, and there was some moss in there that had grown in the sand.

Somewhat to my surprise, it was very easy to work, and stuck to the wall at least as well as any similar gloopy stuff I've tried to stick to walls in the past. I've only done a bit of it, but here's how it looks so far.

Mortar has been applied mostly at the top and left

I'm not sure how well you can see it, but the next picture is a close up showing how thick the old plaster is, and so how much bulk I'm having to make up to match it. Also the wire. I should probably fix and protect that before I go any further.

This could be a long job. Even after I've covered the wall to a reasonable depth - probably at least two coats - it'll take ages before it's dry enough to put the top coat on. At least I think you have to let the bottom coat dry before you put the top coat on, I don't really know. I'll have to look that up.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Fork handle (just the one)

I have a hand fork for gardening that has just two prongs, both somewhat pointed. I've no idea where I got it from because it never would have occurred to me to buy such a thing, but it turns out to be incredibly useful for weeding in stony ground. Recently, I have mostly been using it for transforming the garden path.

About eighteen months ago, years of neglect took their toll on the handle and it fell apart. I then lost the metal part, before rediscovering it some time later, still stuck in the ground. Onwards a few months to the new terrace I made last January, and I had quite a few offcuts of oak left over. I wondered... maybe I could use one of those to make a new handle?

I chose the thickest piece and cut it to length. Most of the work I did with a small, sharp craft knife, starting with taking off the bark. Before I started on shaping the handle, I took a chisel to the end, and trimmed it down so it would fit into the small collar on the fork.

Trimming the handle to fit into the collar

Once I had that trimmed down to size, I set to work whittling the main part of the handle into a comfortable shape to hold. I enjoyed this bit. The next bit was not quite so much fun; I had to make a hole for the metal part to fit into. Not fancying my chances of controlling an electric drill, I used a gimlet, which was effective but slow. I may have run out of patience and tried to fit the two parts together before the hole was quite finished. Of course, once I'd smacked the metal bit in as far as it would go (not quite far enough), I couldn't get it out again

The two parts fitted together

As you can see, the metal section sticks out some way before opening out into the two tines. This means the collar is free to move up and down a bit. As I slammed the metal into place, a couple of small cracks opened up in the wood, but they didn't split the handle open.

There's a small crack visible here.

To finish, I coated the wood liberally in a wax polish - I think it was beeswax melted into linseed oil, which sets surprisingly hard. I paid particular attention to the cracks, filling them so that dirt wouldn't get in and maybe enlarge them.

As well as being very satisfying to make something like this, even if I didn't do it quite as well as I'd have liked, the result is a tool that's a real pleasure to use. Because I held it in my hand to check it as I went along, I have something made exactly to fit my hand. Also, the wax polish has a lovely feel to it. After a good deal of work on the garden path, the fork handle now looks well used.

Perhaps the muddy finish doesn't feel quite so nice to hold as the wax.

I should probably clean it up and give it another coat of polish.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Homemade Absinthe

The first time I tasted Absinthe, a friend was passing round a bottle of it at a party. We all hated it. Since then, however, I've learned that the traditional way of serving it includes sugar and water, which would probably make quite a big difference (note that stuffing jelly beans into the bottle does not improve the flavour).

When I discovered that the plant I'd previously identified as mugwort is in fact wormwood (I really should get better at identifying plants before eating them!) I wondered whether it might be worth having another go at Absinthe. This idle thought was reinforced when I looked up other herbs included in the drink, which include fennel and anise. I don't have any anise, but I did have a bottle of a light, sweet, fizzy drink flavoured with Alexanders (very nice on its own, incidentally), which has an aniseed-like flavour. I also had fennel in the garden, as well as lemon balm (melissa), another of the herbs mentioned, and vodka in the fridge.

By way of experiment, I put some wormwood, fennel and lemon balm in a jar, covered with vodka, and left it to steep. After a few days, it turned a fabulous bright green, but then oxidised to more of an amber colour. Not unappetising, but it was a shame to lose the green.

Still green at the bottom of the jar, already amber at top.

I mixed a little of the infused vodka with the Alexanders drink, and it was really nice. The balance of sweet to bitter was just right. Consequently, that experimental sample has long since gone.

If I make it again, and I probably will, I might try putting all of the herbs into the vodka together, then adding the sugar and water on serving, in the traditional way. Of course, infused vodka isn't really Absinthe, as the herbs were originally introduced before the final distillation. Since I'm not going to get into distillation, I'll stick with infusion. I end up with a strong alcoholic drink flavoured with (some of) the right herbs. If I take more care to exclude air, I might even end up with something the right colour, too.

Friday, 22 January 2016

Welsh tutor cat...

... forbids use of the English text. Read the Welsh!

The coursebook for the Welsh course I started this week recommends practising on anyone who'll listen - including the cat. A better choice of victim, I think, is those people who call me from India wanting to ask me questions. They don't understand any more than George does, but there's more entertainment to be had from throwing random Welsh sentences at them.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Fermenting in a cold climate

This house is never very warm, but at this time of year it can be flippin' freezing! When we wake up in the morning, it's typically 12°C (54°F) or less, rising to 14 or 15°C (59°F) by the evening. It's not exceptionally cold outside - around freezing - but our house is poorly insulated. It's on the to-do list. In the meantime, humans and cats are not the only ones affected by low temperatures.

It amused me to see advice on a fermentation forum not to warm things up:

Let's take sauerkraut as an example. You should keep it rather cold (18-20 degrees Celsius) while fermenting.
Hahahahahaha... ah, um, excuse me. Sorry, but the idea of 18-20°C (64-68°F) as rather cold is too much for me. Maybe for a few weeks of the year (but not last year) my kitchen might reach that temperature. All the same, the point about getting the temperature right is worth noting.

I find that yeast, in particular, struggles with the low temperatures; it gets a bit sluggish below about 14°C. This can affect rising times for bread dough quite severely - What, three in the afternoon and it still hasn't risen? I wanted that for lunch!

I'm a bit short of warm places, too. I don't have an airing cupboard - the usual warm place - as my hot water tank is exceptionally well insulated. There's a hot pipe behind the cooker, and I'm vaguely considering building an insulated cupboard around that, but on the other hand, I'm also vaguely considering fitting a valve so the hot water doesn't flow out of the tank when the stove's not lit, so that might reduce its effectiveness in warming the cupboard.

My solution is a very basic mini heater:

Bread dough in tin, hot water in bowl.

I fill a soup bowl with hot water from the kettle, and stand the bread tin on top of it. This works remarkably well, though may need refreshing once or twice during the rising time. If I have dough shaped on a baking tray instead of in the tin, then I set it over the mixing bowl. Just heat the thing that needs heating.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Seed saving

Saving seeds from one crop to plant next year seems like an obvious thing to do if you're inclined towards self-sufficiency. It's not always straightforward, though. I usually save peas and beans, even though it means sacrificing a part of the crop, but this year it was so wet at the time the beans were ripening that they never dried out, and then they got eaten by something that no doubt appreciated the soft, soaked beans. I'm not sure it would have helped bringing them into the conservatory to dry, as the damp is everywhere.

I did bring leek seed heads into the conservatory, though. These have the added complication of being biennial, like parsnips (which I also saved this year), so a few need leaving in the ground for a second year if you want seeds.

Parsnip seed heads, drying. I haven't dared look to see what state they're in, yet.

My approach to flower gardening is mostly to try and move wild flowers into the flower bed. This year, in amongst the brambles by the fence, one honesty plant appeared. I'm fond of honesty for both the purple flowers in summer and the silvery seed disks at this time of year, as well as for the name (I demand honesty in my garden!).

Honesty, slugging it out with the brambles

I collected a few of the disks the other day and was surprised to find I had as many as 25 seeds in there.

I'm sure I only picked a few disks. So many seeds!

I was going to just throw them on the ground, but when I looked at the place I planned to throw them, it was already occupied.

There's far more grass in other parts of the flower bed, but even so, this is a little crowded

I went out today and dug up a few of the weeds, then scatted my honesty seeds and a bit of leaf mould on top, for good measure. Given that they're wild flowers, I'm reasonably optimistic that something will come up next year. I'll let you know!

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

The unbearable lightness of being in Aberystwyth

I had my first Welsh class today, which I enjoyed, and it finished at 3pm. As I left, I caught sight of the sea, and on impulse, drove towards it so I could go for a walk on the prom. I found a parking space right opposite Charlies, walked round the corner to the wholefood shop to buy a bottle of kombucha, because I've never tried it and I'm curious, and oats, because I'm running low. I then popped into Charlies to enquire about seed potatoes (main crop not in yet, not sure if they'll be getting Sarpo this year, so the convenient parking space wasn't quite as valuable as it might have been) before going down to the sea.

It was incredibly beautiful. The sea was calm and the sky was flecked with clouds, lit gold by the low sun. I walked along for a while, then headed back before I exceeded my one hour parking. By the time I left, there was no sign of starlings. This was a little disappointing, but you know what that means? No starlings at 4pm means that we are no longer in the dead of winter. The nights are drawing out and, though there may be plenty of cold weather to come, spring is on its way.

I drove home with the sun behind me and the golden light on the hills ahead. Now, it has been dark for some hours, the sky is clear and the moon is bright. All is beautiful.

I'm sorry I don't have photos to show you; I didn't have the camera with me in town and I don't know how to use it well enough for moonlit phtotography.

The title of this post, by the way, is taken from a book by Malcolm Pryce. It's a very silly book, and very funny if you happen to like his sense of humour.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Unexpected cheese

I'm sure we've all opened a bottle of milk to find that it's turned to cheese while we weren't looking. Well, this wasn't quite that unexpected, but, well...

We bought some milk that was already at its use-by date, so needed using up quickly. At the same time, I was wondering whether I could come up with any lacto-fermented product that Ian would like, and I put the two together. Whey (from milk) is sometimes used as a starter for sauerkraut, so why not the other way round? I warmed a pint or so of milk and stirred in about a tablespoonful of juice from the sauerkraut. I expected the milk to curdle almost immediately with the acid, but it didn't, so I put in a bowl in a warm-ish place, and left it.

I say left it... I peered at it, stirred it, sniffed it, and tasted it fairly frequently. The smell and taste weren't too off-putting, so I kept it until, after two and a half days, it separated out into curds and whey.

Bowl of milk left on top of the cooker, next to a warm pipe,now separated.

I'd been hoping it might thicken into yoghurt or something similar, but that isn't what I got. I strained out the curds and tasted them. Certainly not yoghurt... not exactly cheese either, but something along those lines. It had a strong tang, so I rinsed the curds under the tap to make them a bit milder, but they're still quite strong. Not necessarily unpleasant, but not what you expect from something that looks like cottage cheese.

Curds, strained and seasoned.

I added a pinch of salt and a tiny bit of finely chopped rosemary for flavour, then variously wrapped and rolled it to squeeze out more of the strong-tasting whey. I left it sitting over the sieve for about half an hour, but it didn't look like it was going to lose any more liquid, so I transferred it to a little plastic pot for the fridge.

This doesn't seem like much for a pint of milk, but hey - cheese!

It holds together reasonably well, but it's still very soft and easily spreadable. It's a ricotta-type cheese, though stronger in flavour. It's not the yoghurt I was hoping for (Ian doesn't like cheese, much) and I'm not sure I'd choose this flavour for cheese, but it was certainly an interesting experiment and the result is far from inedible. I also have a bottle of whey in the fridge, now. I'm not sure what I'm going to do with that.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

First forage of the year

I have a craving for fresh greens, as often happens around this time of year, so I went out and picked a few:

Greens, not all of them wild.

As well as the baby leek (in two parts because it broke when I tried to pull it up), I have sorrel, celandine leaves and hairy bittercress. I'll make them into some kind of sauce to go with root vegetables, which I'll probably mash up into potato cake-type things. Hearty winter food.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

In a pickle

Since my early experiments with pickling samphire, I have decided that I prefer vinegar-pickled to lacto fermented for this vegetable. I tried to make vinegar for this, but it didn't go well, so I had to buy some. I looked at the expensive stuff, I looked at pickling vinegar, the nice stuff was about three times the price, so I bought the pickling vinegar.

When I got it home and opened the bottle, it was a bit rough. Oh well, you get what you pay for, I suppose. I used it for the samphire anyway, then wondered what else I might preserve, to use up all that pickling vinegar. It would have to be something with a good strong flavour, to stand up to the rather harsh vinegar.

This was in late October, around the time we might expect the first frost. Walking past my nasturtium plants, it occurred to me 1) that they would soon be reduced to slimy mush by frost, and 2) that they were covered in green seeds. I've heard of pickling nasturtium seeds before - apparently they make a good alternative to capers. Now, I don't eat a lot of capers, but the peppery flavour of nasturtiums would surely stand up well to the cheap pickling vinegar, and if I wanted to try it, I'd have to get a move on. I picked all that I could find, chucked them in a jar and poured vinegar over them.

One small jar of nasturtium seeds, pickling

Shortly after that, I saw a bag of pickling onions for sale in the supermarket for £1, so I bought them. Following Pam Corbin's suggestion, I added some sugar to the pickling vinegar for these, but otherwise didn't do much to them. So I now have pickled samphire, nasturtium seeds, and onions, and still a bit of vinegar left.

The nasturtium seeds are fantastic! I can't see the resemblance to capers, myself. Mind you, I can't think of any other way to describe the flavour, either. They retain their peppery kick, though, and I love them on pizza. The onions are... pickled onions. Pretty good ones. I like them. I still think the samphire is the best, even if it's not quite as good as it would be in better quality vinegar. On a wholemeal biscuit with a bit of mascarpone cheese, it's hard to beat.

I think this might actually have been a chestnut biscuit. Even better.

Friday, 15 January 2016

Dysgu Cymraeg

I've intended to learn Welsh since we moved here, but somehow didn't quite get round to getting started for the first few years. Then Brython, a friend of ours who Ian knows through the community bus service (he's a volunteer driver and committee member), started running a group for Welsh learners. Since he was willing to give his time, I felt it would be churlish not to go along.

I didn't know Brython very well when the group started, a couple of years ago, but he was very pleased that I'd turned up, and was keen to encourage a new Welsh learner. He expressed this by looking straight at me for a lot of the evening, whilst talking Welsh. This was quite terrifying. Other members of the group were sympathetic and said things like, Don't worry, just listen out for the odd word that you know. The trouble was, I didn't know any words.

After that evening, I had a choice: I could give up and run away, and either avoid Brython or feel awkward every time I saw him, or I could put some effort into learning a bit of Welsh before the next meeting a month later. As you may have guessed by now, I chose the latter option.

There are lots of resources available online, as well as at the local library This is great if, like me, you're too skint to pay for actual lessons. Having got over the first hurdle - living smack bang in the middle of Wales, do I go for the North or the South version? (South, I think) - I quite enjoyed the BBC's Big Welsh Challenge*. After spending quite a bit of time with this over the following month, the next time I heard Brython speak Welsh, it sounded quite different - it sounded like language.

This was an indication of quite how low my starting point had been. Unlike French or German, I'd had no prior exposure to Welsh at all, so my brain didn't interpret the sounds as language. We have specialist language-processing areas of our brains, so that language is treated differently from other sounds, and these just weren't engaging for me when I heard Welsh. No wonder I found it terrifying!

That was almost two years ago, and since then I've continued to work away at learning Welsh. It's certainly not an easy language because it's very different from English. I found a very encouraging article on Quora that included the advice:It's not difficult to learn a language, it just takes a lot of time. As to how long, he gives the estimate of 600+ hours of study to reach fluency in French.

Now, I think Welsh is rather more difficult than French, but on the other hand I'd be happy with something less than fluency, so I'll take 600 hours as a guideline figure. Suppose I were to study for 20 min a day, six days a week, for 50 weeks a year. That would be 100 hours a year, so 600 hours in six years. Twenty minutes a day feels doable, and I'd be very happy to have a reasonable grasp of the language in six years, especially bearing in mind that I took three years to even get started.

For an English speaker, Welsh looks difficult. For a start, there are all those consonants - The villages of Ysbyty Cynfyn and Cwmystwyth are both a few miles from here . Then you learn that Y and W are vowels, most of the time, and it looks a lot easier. Then you notice the vowels: They're often strung together, just one after another with nothing to break them up. Lliwiau (colours), for example, has five of them in a row. Here I think it is essential to have a Welsh speaker to learn from, then it's just a matter of getting used to how it sounds when vowels are pronounced one after the other.

The next big hurdle is mutations: The first letter of some words changes in some contexts. For example, the village I live in is called Pontarfynach, which is three words run together: Pont (bridge, same as French) ar (on) Fynach. The name of the river is Mynach (which means monk), so that M is mutated to F (which is pronounced like an English V unless there are two together) in the middle of the name. Then if I want to say that I live here, the P at the beginning mutates, too.

It's all very confusing, but I've found that if I don't expect to learn the mutations as I go, then it's not that bad. In fact, I started with just trying to note, Oh yeah, that'll be a mutation, if I spotted one. My learners' dictionary has three pages of rules on the subject - there is no way I'm ever going to learn that lot. In fact, I'm pretty sure that native Welsh speakers do not learn the rules explicitly. For this reason, I'm aiming to expose myself to as much of the language as possible, in the hope that correctly mutated words become familiar and so feel more right than incorrect words.

I'm focusing on reading, because unlike listening, I can go as slowly as I need to. This endeavour got a great boost when I discovered that the library has Roald Dahl books translated into Welsh and available in electronic format. Since we have a set of Roald Dahl books on the bookshelf, I can read the Welsh and English versions side by side.

Charlie a Ffatri Siocled
(click for a bigger image if you want to actually see the text)

This way of studying is lots of fun, and the motivation to learn (rather than just checking the English all the time) is that I can read the story much more quickly if I can understand more of the Welsh. I'm not worried about getting every word, just enough to follow the story. The goal here is exposure, remember.

In addition, I'm also listening to the radio, which is much harder to follow due to the speed. While I'm doing the dishes, it's usually Bore Cothi** that I'm listening to. Sian Cothi has such a warm smile in her voice that I feel welcome and included even if I don't understand a word. Increasingly, though, I do understand some of the words, and the regular structure of a radio show helps me, as I get to know what sort of thing is coming up next.

Sorry for rambling on about it, but I'm quite excited to be making some progress with this. Last year, while I didn't feel like doing anything much, I did feel like learning Welsh. Having been fairly terrified to start with, and now I can more-or-less follow a book written for seven year-olds. I'm still too nervous to actually say much, though, so I'm going to start a beginners' conversation class next week.

* I've also found Memrise very useful for learning vocab. The content is provided by users, so is a little hit and miss, but the way the material is presented and tested is based on very sound psychology.

** Bore means morning, so this is a play on Coffee Morning, which would be Bore Coffi.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Bright and cold

OK, so yesterday I didn't manage to get anything posted, and it was because the post got too long and I ran out of time. If I'd just stopped and posted what I already had, it would have just been about stuff that happened two years ago and none of the more recent stuff. Ho hum.

Today, we finally have some almost-wintery weather. It's bright and sunny, and there's snow on the hills.

It wasn't quite so bright at 10:30 this morning.
I love to watch the mist rising in the valley.

As the sunlight chased across the view, I saw a bright green, sunlit field with a bright snowy hill behind it. The camera saw either one...

... or the other.

The railway dog came up to check things out. He may not have been checking the same things as the humans he was with.

Our window thermometer shows the temperature not much above freezing

I was surprised by a noise I haven't heard for a while, the noise of a water pump.

Solar panel display shows a much higher temperature for the panel
(that's Celsius, so about 104 Farenheit).

In direct sunlight, the solar panel heats up well, even when the air temperature is cold. Since the water tank was relatively cool this morning, the panel got warm enough for the controller to switch on the pump. This is very pleasing. Less pleasing is the amount of heat lost between the panel and the house (indicated by 'Pipe' temperature). I'll come back to this.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Little things

Sometimes, just a small change can make quite a big difference to your quality of life. In this house, we can't get radio reception, not DAB, not analogue, nothing. On the other hand, we do have a reasonable broadband connection, so we can listen to the radio over the internet, as we do for watching TV. I quite like listening to the radio while washing the dishes, but unfortunately my laptop speakers aren't powerful enough for me to hear over the sound of rattling crockery and splashing water.

Here's my solution: I found some little speakers that used to belong to a desktop computer. I checked that speakers will work upside down without getting upset. I cut denim straps from an old pair of jeans and fixed them to the underside of a kitchen cupboard with drawing pins. I hung up the speakers by their little stands.

No, this photo is not upside down, the speaker is.

It's still more faff than switching on a radio to take my laptop in there, plug in, and switch on the speakers, but not so much that it isn't worth the effort. I can now listen to the radio whilst washing the dishes. This has transformed a chore that I used to avoid until the kitchen was unbearable into something I really don't mind doing. Little things.

Monday, 11 January 2016

Yeast farming and foraging

At some point in the last couple of years - I forget when, exactly - I stopped buying yeast for baking. I'd tried sourdough once before, when a kind friend gave me a starter, but I hadn't managed to keep it alive. This was discouraging and also made me feel guilty, which didn't help. I'd read about getting a sourdough starter going, and it involved a lot of discarding half the mixture. With my hatred of waste, this didn't appeal.

Instead, I just tried to keep my domesticated yeast alive from one baking day to the next. I put a few tablespoonfuls of bread dough in a jar, added more water then extra flour from time to time, and that was about it. Over time, I got used to my starter. With experience, I learnt when it needed feeding and how to keep it healthy. One thing I discovered was that it benefits from adding veg water instead of plain water. I give it the cooking water (cooled) from potatoes and carrots.

Another thing I found worth changing was the process I use to make bread. I'd been following the no-knead method, whereby the dough is made the night before baking and left to develop overnight, then folded in on itself a couple of times before going in the baking tin. This meant adding some of the starter when I made the dough, and topping up the starter at that point with flour and water. Over the course of a few months, I found the starter tended to get less vigorous until eventually I gave up and started a new one.

The change was to make a sponge, or very wet dough, the night before, using all of the starter and only half of the flour, then return some of the wet dough to the jar the following morning, before adding more flour and salt to the dough for bread. This the requires kneading, so it's a bit more work than the other method, but the starter seems to stay healthier.

This has been fine, but I quite like the idea of using wild yeast. Opinions vary on where this comes from; some say it's in the air and others say it's in the flour. I use cheap white flour and I very much doubt it has anything of any value in it. As for what's in the air in my kitchen - well, I think I'd be much more likely to get mould than useful yeast.

Then I read an article that told me an easy way of getting wild yeast: It's on cabbage leaves. I have some cabbages in my garden that didn't form heads, so weren't much use as vegetables. It would be nice if I could harvest something from them. I picked a couple of leaves that had clearly visible white yeast on the surface and put them in a small quantity (I didn't want to waste a lot of flour on a failed experiment) of wallpaper-paste strength flour and water.

After a couple of days, I saw the first signs of tiny bubbles. At this point, I removed the cabbage leaves, scraping as much gloop off them as I could. The mixture did smell a bit cabbagey, but hopefully that would dilute out soon enough. For a couple more days I monitored and fed the mixture a bit, until there were definitely bubbles and a certain sourness to the smell. At this point I'd have to take some out to make space in the jar for more feeding.

With the first extraction of starter, I made a few wholemeal rolls, adding enough flour to make dough but no extra water. I didn't expect much but with a long rising time (about four hours, I think), they came out OK. The cabbagey smell wasn't really detectable but even so, I made the first loaf wholemeal, too, as I thought that would cover any undesirable flavours better than white. I held off making a decision on this new starter until I'd made a white loaf, which I did this morning.

First loaf made with wild yeast

It certainly looks the part, and it tastes just like bread made with the domesticated yeast. No interesting sourdough flavours, just bread. The starters look pretty similar, too: Both are frothy beige gloop.

Two bubbly starters. Domesticated yeast is on the left, wild yeast on the right.

If anything, the wild yeast is more vigorous than the domesticated, but that might just be because I'm giving it warmer conditions to encourage it to develop more quickly. I'd kind of hoped for a more complex flavour from the wild yeast, but maybe that will develop with time. Even if it's just the same as the domesticated, I'm going to switch over to using the wild, just because I like the idea of having foraged my bread yeast.