Wednesday, 27 October 2010


I wrote a post yesterday about how I tend to sabotage myself, before I even get started. Ironically, I didn't publish it, because who would want to read that anyway?

No amount of navel gazing will actually move you forward. You can believe that you will never be as good at something as you want to be. You can believe that perfection is an achievable goal.  You can believe that there is always someone else that will do something better than you ever will. You can believe that there are outside agencies that will prevent you from achieving what you want. You can believe that any mistake you have ever made condemns you to failure for the rest of your days. You can believe any of the negative mind chatter that you want to believe about yourself, that stops you moving forward to where you want to go.

When I say you, obviously I mean me. I realise now after all these years there is an easier way to live. Just ignore the mind chatter; much in the way you would ignore someone trying to sell you extra cable TV, or double glazing for a house you don't own, or a handcart trip to hell and other crap you don't need. Those people eventually give up and go home. If you are too busy concentrating on the things you really want to succeed at, whether that be designing knitting patterns, growing prize pumpkins, becoming financially independent, or becoming world Tetris champion, self sabotaging thoughts won't have room to take root. Life is too short to let the ghosts of everyone who has ever criticised you, called you names, told you you are incapable or made you feel that you can never ever be good enough, to rule your life. You can't gaze at your navel and the horizon at the same time; and I know which one is generally more worthy of study.

It's all just a case of deciding to begin; and then deciding to keep on carrying on. So I have decided to begin.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Meditations on fermentations

We have been hard at work here during 2010; and after 9 months of hard slog; or rather a few hours light work spread over 9 months, I have a new baby:

It's not quite finished and needs to rest in the bottle for a few more months, but here is the 2010 vintage parsnip wine. We have been brewing our own beer for several years, which is Nick's domain (previously referred to here as OH, but apparently he is ready to come out now from behind the acronym to show the world his booze); but the wine only got started in earnest in February, by myself. This is my first bottling and I am ridiculously pleased with myself.

I can recommend brewing, winemaking and even seasonal liqueur making as excellent hobbies for simple living types for several reasons. Firstly, the start up costs are low - most of the (minimal) equipment and chemicals required can be purchased cheaply and in stages, if they aren't already lying around the house. We managed to get most of our demijohns from Freecycle and most of our empty bottles from our more hedonistic friends. All of my books have come second hand. The raw ingredients in the case of winemaking can be seasonal gluts or even foraged fruits and some cane sugar, as well as a handful of inexpensive chemicals. Beer is a little more demanding as most people don't live near malting houses or grow their own hops, but with the magic of the Internet it is still achievable for most people. Whatever way you go about it, the finished product will have cost a fraction of the price of any commercial product and can be of higher quality and character.

The basic principles behind both beer and wine making are simple to grasp and apply; but afterwards you can go as deep into the art, science and technology as you wish. You can start with tinned extract kits or start from raw ingredients. The finished product will be better with each attempt, although there will be mistakes along the way, most of which you won't know about until you have taken a mouthful of the foul brew.  

I love the process of making wine. It is a lot slower than brewing, but I love the alchemy of watching pulp ferment, watching bubbles flow through airlocks, racking the wine over and over into clean demijohns and seeing that it is clearer with every month that goes by. If you are less than patient by nature (which is usually me, I have to say), you can buy extra chemicals and filters to speed the process up. But why rush?

If it is something that interests you, a quick google search will bring up a range of forums, advice pages, blogs and recipes. Even better, try to find a local home brew shop (there are more around than I realised, certainly in the UK) as the staff are generally keen to pass on their knowledge and advice (and of course their wares, most of which you may or may not actually need). Radical Brewing by Randy Mosher is a bible of beer making, tasting, culture and history; with humour to boot. First Steps in Wine Making by C.J.J. Berry is a classic beginners text. A peruse of the library, second hand book stores and eBay will often turn up some older treasures.

Soon after the parsnip wine was first racked, a friend and I started a 15 litre batch of rhubarb wine which is making good progress. This past week Nick and I walked to the common and collected a sackful of wild rosehips, which are fermenting now in a bucket. This time next year I hope to be toasting autumn and Halloween with a few friends and a wine that is allegedly second only to grape wine in quality. Which brings me to yet another reason to ferment-it-yourself. The end product inspires good feeling and good times, whether you give it away as a present or host a party, or even brew with a buddy. So long as the alcohol doesn't flow too freely, of course...

Monday, 18 October 2010

Back to basics - budgeting links

I have known for a few months that our income would be dropping when OH started university. I knew that he would be starting university in September. Unfortunately, us being us, we were a little hazy on the details of just how a drop in income of a few hundred pounds a month would effect us. Now here we are, finding out just what it means. We are not in dire straits, but the budget will certainly be leaner over the next few months. It is a little daunting to return to budgeting after a few months of belt loosening. Which was all good fun whilst it lasted. However, all that hard work and frugality will have been for nothing if we end up right back where we started.

I am trying to recapture that feeling of excitement I had at the end of last year when began to make serious inroads into our debts.  Luckily in my mind, autumn and winter are a time for retiring a little from the world; and despite the gift giving frenzy that is December, plus a few birthdays, I don't tend to have as many hedonistic money splurging urges as I do in the warmer months.

Still, to get myself in the mood for belt tightening, I have been looking over some of the resources I found so useful the first time around:

Rhonda Jean at Down to Earth has written many inspiring posts about managing the household budget and making more from less.

Money Saving Expert, both the main site and the forums, are a treasure trove of budgeting, debt busting and consumer advice.

The Simple Dollar is a beautifully simple personal finance blog that focuses on the basics - 'Trent's money rules' and '31 days to fix your finances' ofter practical advice and a financial carrot (and sometimes stick) to keep you on the straight and narrow. It was here that I first learnt to think about my money in terms of hours worked; which put me on the road (eventually, after working through my stubborness...) to simpler living.

As it doesn't always come naturally, what inspires you to manage your finances? Do you need a carrot, or a stick? Do you budget, or do you just go with the flow every month? I need some inspiration, please!

Thursday, 14 October 2010

A life (slightly) less spicy

This is a good time of year for taking stock, and in this specific instance, taking stock of stock ingredients. I was going to run with taking stock of the stock cupboard, but that is for another day, so today's dire pun of a post will revolve around my spice drawer. Behold:

I think leaving home, branching out and discovering who you are and who you want to become inevitably involves some rebelling against your heritage and exploring what the world has to offer. In my case, that meant a good deal of experimenting with food and flavours. I am not a fan of bland, but a fan of strong, punchy, fragrant, warming, zesty, spicy, earthy, piquant, hot, cooling, sweet, sour, acidic, smoky and everything above beyond and in between. Which poses problems in a simpler kitchen, because you need a large spice drawer to house all of those adjectives.

With the exception of green cardamon pods, I have never met a spice or herb that I couldn't eventually work with. Living in a city with several excellent ethnic supermarkets meant I have had the opportunity to work my way around the world's flavours cheaply and find what I like. Unfortunately, I liked most of it.

I am now working and cooking for a family, which means there is less time for experimenting, less money for wasting and less space to store ingredients. So today I took a few minutes to pare down my spice drawer.  Firstly, I removed anything that was out of date, after a sniff and possibly a taste test. That removed about a quarter of the seasonings. Next I went through the nearly used up jars, to see if I could use them up before they were past their best. In my heart of hearts, I know that I will never use fennel and dill seed again, so they were out. I decanted my prized core herbs and spices that I could not live without into now empty air-tight jars and returned them to the drawer.

I like Indian food when eating at restaurants, but rarely cook it at home. All of the Indian and Balti spice mixes have gone, along with a few individual herbs and spices particular to those cuisines. Some seasonings are very versatile - garlic, ginger, oregano, basil, paprika, chilli, black pepper will service a range of different dishes from pasta to goulash to a stir fry or Thai curry (at a stretch). Some, such as cumin, I use only when I make a chilli or marinade meat, but then I make chilli quite often. Some spices I despise when dried but love fresh from the plant, such as parsley and coriander. Some seasonings are seasonal - I use sumac and dried mint by the ton in summer, but could probably go without over winter. Cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice don't see the light of day until autumn.

When I plan next years garden, I want to maximise my production of flavour ingredients. We have a potted bay tree; and bay also grows wild in the parks around here, as do massive rosemary plants.  We also have thyme, mint, tarragon, parsley and sage; and I plan to add a few others. I also need to learn, finally, how to preserve and store them at the end of the season.

A quick peruse of the Internet on spice storage is quite frankly, confusing, so I have distilled my own experience and a bit of common sense into a few basic rules that I will from now on be following: 
  • Don't buy large quantities of spices unless you use that spice in large quantities. It isn't cost effective if they are past their best when you come to use them. Most have a shelf life of up to 1 year at best.
  • Decant all herbs and spices the moment they are opened into airtight containers and store in a cool dark place, possibly even the fridge or freezer if ground. I lost good basil for want of this, sigh.
  • Buy whole spices and grind them as needed, if possible. They stay fresher for longer.
  • A quick sniff audit every now and again should tell you whether something is past its best - and that doesn't necessarily mean odourless. Savour the spices when they are fresh and you will know how they are meant to smell and taste.
  • Explore you locality for wild growing herbs. If you have the space, grow your own seasonings. This should save money, beautify your surroundings and mean you always have seasonings on hand for the pot.
If you are wondering why this important issue is so dear to my heart, please have a heart for those forgotten citizens of your spice rack. ; )

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Needing a push.

Our internet connection is playing up at the moment, so posting will be even more intermittent than it has been of late, until we get it sorted.

It has had its advantages. Many of the odd jobs I have been meaning to do since we moved in over two years ago are now complete. The living room has been painted. The sofa covers have been cleaned and dyed a deep (sticky-fingered-toddler proof) navy. Some more decluttering has been done and some rearranging of furniture. All in all, the house looks a little fresher and a little more welcoming; and it probably would not all have been completed had I had reliable internet access.

This is my favourite time of year, not least because I associate it with starting school and university and a year of learning, challenges and new experiences ahead. Its unlikely I will ever be going back to university; and as my darling OH has just started his mental health nurse training, I am tinged with a little jealousy too. I want to be immersed in piles of books and essays and seminars. I feel stuck in a rut. I haven't really pushed myself mentally since I left university; and my job seems to actively waste away my brain. There is no amount of decorating, crafting and housekeeping that is going to change this fact. I need a real challenge, a push, but in which direction I do not yet know.

The spinning is going better with each attempt and I am hooked. The rhythmic motions and productivity of it are very relaxing. I downloaded Respect the Spindle with Abby Franquemont and ordered the book of the same name and all I can say is I LOVE ABBY FRANQUEMONT. The book and video are beautiful and explain everything so well, at a pace you can practice along to. My spindle of loosely twisted, uneven merino has become finer and more consistent, almost yarn like, in fact...

Mild disgruntlement aside, I am looking forward to the rest of autumn and onwards into a new year. I know that most people have a season that they love and autumn is mine. Whatever you are up to, I hope you make the most of the months ahead, whether the passage of the seasons be winding up or winding down in your hemisphere. Enjoy it.


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