Tuesday, 27 July 2010

The powered down kitchen

This week I have been brooding over both our food budget and our energy use. The food I have made great progress on whittling down over the last twelve months but still want to tweak it a little to incorporate building up a decent store and rotation. The utilities are going in the opposite direction. We pay our gas and electric bills by monthly direct debit; and once again the amounts have had to rise to take into account rising prices and our own profligacy.  It can be hard at the end of the day to change daily habits - for example, ooooh, lets say - hours sat in front of the PC, browsing mindlessly. Ironically, the path of least resistance in this case is the one that uses the most energy.

A few months ago I found a brilliant book  - The Victory Cookbook by Marguerite Patten. Marguerite, who is now in her nineties, was in effect Britains' first celebrity chef, a home economist in the Ministry of Food during WWII. The book is a compilation of her three wartime cookbooks and some additional illustrations, adverts, pamphlets and background information from the war, victory and 'austerity' years.

The first thing I noticed was how unappetising some of the recipes are a first glance, to someone who has a world cuisine at their disposal. This was a Britain before Elizabeth David and the prosperity of the sixties. There were no fast food joints, olive oil was bought from a chemist (that's a pharmacy to the rest of the English speaking world) and Coronation Chicken only popped onto the scene in 1953. Food systems were relatively localised and the cuisines of empire hadn't impacted on the nations taste beyond tea, cocoa, bananas and orange squash. Dig a little deeper of course and you realise that the book adapts quite nicely to a more prosperous population hankering after seasonal local food.

The second thing that really dawned on me was just how little people had to eat during the war - and how they had even less as the economy was mobilised for export after 1945. The absurdity of the average modern industrialised diet of too many calories, too much fat and too few nutrients (along with massive systemic and domestic food waste) is brought in to sharp focus against a national food heritage of war rationing and hunger that actually left the war generation the healthiest and longest lived in European history.

The third point, was the emphasis that was placed upon fuel efficiency throughout. Admonitions against lighting the oven for a single dish and over boiling vegetables sit next to recipes for griddle scones and breads, raw side salads and even a plan for a hay box, the low tech equivalent of the modern slow cooker. This is something that modern cookbooks, even the most thrift minded, do not take into account, because today cooking represents such a small percentage of our home energy use. Except it doesn't, when you take into account that the majority of cooks now have fridges,  freezers, blenders, processors, toasters, juicers, coffee machines, microwaves, slow cookers, electric carving knives, breadmakers and deepfat fryers at their disposal.

This happens to be an area of home energy use I would like to tackle. It began when I realised that my oven only had one shelf that could actually cook food, the shelf underneath burns anything to a crisp if it is placed within 15 cm of the heating element in the bottom of the oven. It is the middle of summer and I do not need to heat my entire house up via the incredibly inefficient means of a poorly insulated electric oven with leaky seals. Which means my old style bread making and baking routines will have to be put on the back burner (no pun intended) until the chillier nights of autumn. For the next few months we will be using the hob; and preferably one ring at a time.

The summer months are the perfect time, I realise, to do away with the oven. Salad ingredients are in abundance and low or no-cook meals are the key to lots of hours lazing in the garden watching the sun go down.  They go better with a chilled glass of wine or homebrew lager.

Today I cooked oatmeal cakes on the griddle pan (a recipe from The Victory Cookbook). We have breakfasted on pancakes and made flat breads to go with soup. I have gone from hating my griddle pan (possibly because I never really got the hang of using it for anything other than making charcoal out of batter mix) to adoring it. It is impossible to cook anything overly complicated on a griddle, but the simple food it can produce can be delicious.I love the fact that I could pack it in my knapsack and take it camping too, or stick it on the barbeque.

In late autumn, that period of blustery days and cool nights that demands soups and the odd casserole, I plan to construct a hay box, which sounds like an even lazier method of cooking than the griddle. I had been considering buying an electric slow cooker for a while, but would have to work 6 hours to buy a half decent one and I wouldn't really save fuel costs if the thing is on for 10 hours. I will instead invest 8 hours hard labour into buying a pressure cooker that will cook my pulses in half the time, heat up my meals ready for the haybox, and pressure-can all those pickles I plan on getting around to making 'some day'... I hate those words.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Building a library

I grew up in a home with hundreds, if not thousands, of books. I used to think that it was sacrilege to throw a book out, or to 'deface' them by making notes in the margins. GCSE English Literature was two years of hell for me, being forced as I was to scrawl interpretive notes in the margins of some of the finest works in the English language.

I have changed my tune in the last few years. I have sold many books that I had never got around to reading, not least because it earned me a few much needed pennies. Now I am at the stage where I am editing my bookshelves to reflect the person I am hoping to become and the the lifestyle I want to lead. The magazines have already gone, now its time to get started on weightier tomes.

Whilst we have a collection of good fiction books that we will read again and again, the main focus of our shelves is non-fiction.  I always considered myself a bit of a scholar and these shelves used to house a lot of theory and discourse on politics, environment and science, many of them from my university days. I couldn't bear to part with them. I now realise that it is all well and good, but a shelf full of theory and discourse is useless until you have a couple of shelves dedicated to the nitty gritty of everyday life - cleaning, cooking, sewing on a button, growing a garden, building a community.

The tone of those books has to be take into account too. There is a lady, lets call her Martha, who has made a career out of teaching people how to make a home and garden and an awesome scrapbook of holiday memories, whilst waiting for the cupcakes to cool and the hand dyed silk gift ribbons to dry. Which is cool. It is good that one of the TV icons of the modern world is basically a TV homemaker. I have bought a few of her books and enjoy perusing her website.

But now I am considering selling them. Because in a lower energy future, the kind of domestic  organisation and tweaking that Martha advocates isn't going to survive the cut. Not everyone can maintain their house as a boutique hotel when unsupported by cheap energy and cut price imported wicker baskets and Dymo labellers. I am sure that Martha will adapt. She may even lead again.She is keen on Organic gardening, real food, natural cleaning products and handicrafts. All essential skills when we (the developed nations) don't have every other continent furnishing our rapacious appetites. But the tone and the ingredients and the energy inputs will have to be adapted to a lower consumption reality.

And so my bookshelf is adapting. It looks rather a lot like the bookshelf we had when I was a child - knitting, crocheting, sewing, cooking, foraging, brewing, wine making,baking, DIYing and gardening. The cookbooks have been whittled down to a mere dozen, with a focus on seasonal, nutrient dense (and low down the food chain) foods with low-energy prepartion methods (none of that, by the way, translates as 'tasteless' or 'inedible' or even 'boring'). There are some 'theory' books - a few permaculture texts, a few books that give the 'why' as well as the 'how'. I am looking forward to reading all of these with fresh eyes and scribbling my own thoughts in the margins...I might even take some post it notes, or even a highlighter to some of them!

Monday, 19 July 2010

The beach

Today we went to the beach for an impromptu picnic, with last nights leftovers and a freshly made salad. We love this beach. It is a rarity in that it is vegetated shingle - there are very few parts of the world where shingle beach is stable enough to allow the few specially adapted plants that can live on it to thrive. The photos are ones that I took a few weeks ago and I will probably post plenty more, because the beach changes with the seasons and looks beautiful all year round.

 A year or so ago a letter turned up in the local paper from a woman suggesting that the council should have gone out and cleared all the 'weeds' because it would encourage more tourists to use it, that the beach was somehow a disgrace to Portsmouth. This woman could not see the beach for the beauty of the stately pale green sea kale bending with the breeze. The mauves, the greens, the blues, the pinks and yellows of the vegetation against an ever changing sky. The birds that this habitat supports. She couldn't even see that the vegetation provided a further layer of sea defence for a city that sits barely above sea level. Apparently the tens of people scattered along the beach enjoying the relative tranquilty (to the 'tourist' beach a mile down the coast) were not enough for this woman; she would not be happy until the entire beach looked like Brighton on a bank holiday weekend.


 I think that that woman was wrong.

So did someone else:

Memorial benches line the promenade, as they do in most seaside towns. They are poignant reminders on sunny days of the brevity of life and what really matters. Someone took a lot of time to decorate this bench with knitted panels (looped through and stitched at the back). At first I thought it was a totally awesome bit of random knit graffiti, until I saw the top middle panel, which had 'Isobel' stitched in pearl beading, the name the bench is dedicated to.

I think that when I go, I would like a bench overlooking the sea someplace; and I would like some good crafty friends to come and embellish it once in a while, to remind others to stop and look at the flowers and feel the breeze on their skin; and be filled with thanks that they are alive.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Peak denial

"But let’s be perfectly honest: Any steps we might take to prepare for a potential environmental, societal, or economic disruption, no matter how grand, are nearly certain to be insufficient. Nevertheless, they are still necessary. They will be insufficient because being perfectly prepared is infinitely expensive. But actions are necessary because they help us align our lives with what we know about the world. In my experience, when gaps exist between knowledge and actions, anxiety (if not fear) is the result. So it’s not the state of the world that creates the anxiety quite as much as it is someone’s lack of action." 
-Chris Martenson in Resilience: Personal Preparation (The Post Carbon Reader Series: Building Resilience)

In 2006 I first came across the concept of 'Peak Oil', first from an article in National Geographic and then through 'The Party's Over' by Richard Heinberg. It is an excellent introduction to peak oil theory and I highly recommend it as a starting point. Where initially I had enthusiasm for preparing and reskilling for a powered down future, in recent months I have been steering clear of anything related to peak oil, climate change and financial meltdown. Quite frankly, it all got too much and it left me almost paralysed with foreboding and despondency.

It becomes hard to to ignore something when it goes mainstream. At the same time as I was trying my best to pretend the issues away, this report was launched, not from the usual suspects, but from some of the largest corporations and businesses in the UK. This was followed swiftly by dire warnings from the US military and the British governments former chief science advisor David King who was scathing about our approach to energy security. Still, I have persevered with my magical thinking.

Unfortunately my blue sky approach has just hit a storm front in the form of this report from Lloyd's of London. I haven't waded through it yet and I probably never will, but the fact it comes from the heart of La-La land (that'll be the City), it is a wake up call just for its very existence. Its existence, combined with the horrifying images coming from the Gulf of Mexico over the last few months; and the tales of financial woe coming from regular people on some of the forums I visit; has led me to re question my attitudes.

My wake up call was followed by a period of anxiety for the future. The quote from Chris Martenson (creator of The Crash Course) sums up my mood. I realised that as a family unit, we were not doing what we needed to do with the knowledge that we have. I wasn't entirely sure that my OH and I were even singing from the same hymn sheet - he is a total petrol head and is more likely to be found on PistonHeads (I'm not even going to countenance it with a hyperlink) looking for old fuel guzzling bangers than The Oil Drum looking for crude production statistics.

Yesterday we sat down and had a short chat. I started by asking him what kind of world we would be living in as Gus grew up. We agreed that we had probably reached, or were close to peak oil production. We agreed that the climate was changing and that food and political security were uncertain. We agree that the West's time as the global superpower was over and that whatever is left over will be going east. We envisioned that within the next 10 years, there will probably be oil shocks, blackouts and economic hardship for many people.  We agreed that people that "could never live without their hair straighteners/mobile/weekly nail appointment" would probably learn to. We agreed that technology would adapt, but the level of energy use and convenience provided by the oil binge we have been on would never be matched. Our vision of the future looks somewhere between the home front of WWII and the appropriate technology experiments of the 1970s, hopefully with the internet and progressive attitudes thrown in. We both agreed that the future was not destined to be apocalyptic.

I feel better, because I know that we both broadly agree where the world is going. Which means that we will be able to broach the subject (in all fairness, it will probably be me doing all the broaching...at least until PistonHeads shuts down) with each other and make plans and changes as as and before the need arises.

I will document what we are up to in this blog, which is probably going to take a slightly different direction to the one that I was expecting. Simplifying doesn't necessarily mean powered down, but with a bit of extra thought it can be just that.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Taking stock

There are a few stragglers around the house. I know I am missing a few dishcloths and definitely a crochet blanket I am working on. Now I have taken stock, I realise that not buying any more craft materials until I have used up what I have won't actually be so hard. 

I can't believe just how many WIPS and UFOs I have. I would have estimated seven, it turns out there are closer to fifteen. Some will be finished in the next few months, some will be frogged and the yarn salvaged for reuse. Whilst I feel a tad guilty about the money this yarn represents, I am dead excited by all the wonderful textures and colours I have to pick and choose from. I might even get around to designing a few patterns of my own which I have wanted to do for a long time. 

My pretties are now sorted into bags and boxes and stowed away safely. I now know why Ravelry includes that 'Stash' tab. I might be making use of it, now I realise I have such a stash to keep track of. I have chucked all of the scraps and poor quality yarns that I will never get around to to using. I still have a big bag of tangled yarn given to me by my friends mum; eventually I will sort through it with a knitting friend and see what we can do with it. 

Of course, if yarn companies would stop producing such yummy yarns and wafting them under my nose, this wouldn't even be a problem...(whistle and wander away nonchalantly, neglecting to mention that there is also the sewing stash, the paper stash, the bead stash...).

Monday, 12 July 2010


This week has been a holiday week. I actually worked my regular hours whilst my OH took the week off and entertained family who came down for Goodwood. Whilst wistfully staring out of my office window, thinking about the rest of my family (and it seems, the rest of the nation) who were out picnicing and paddling and generally chilling, I had time to mull a few things over.

First, I realised that I am rubbish at booking holiday. I have used about 3 days of my allowance this year so far and have nothing booked. I always end up saving it because I know it causes my boss hassle to cover it and it generally causes grief to whichever colleagues get left short staffed that partcular day. It sucks, however, because I know deep down I prioritise not wanting to cause a little bit of work for others way above taking time out for myself and my family.

I also thought long and hard about how much I enjoy the days off I have; and I realise that the answer is actually 'very little'.  I end up focusing on the things I hate doing and seem to have very little time for the things that I would love to do. My life is filled with too much routine and drabness, which is about as far as you can get from the life I always envisioned for myself and my family when I was growing up. Whilst I am beginning to appreciate the importance of some routines (life is more enjoyable, for example, when you keep on top of the housework and laundry pile), I realise that days can go by without me learning anything new.

I have now requested some holiday for later in the year and resolve to be less kind to my (admittedly lovely) boss and request holiday to suit myself and not feel guilty about it. I still managed a few trips out this week, which were fun, because I was forced to actually do things that were life and knowledge expanding; and spent time in good company. My 22 month old son sees the world with such wonder (his current most used word is 'Wowwwwww') and is always looking for new things to explore; I don't see why adults should be any different. If we were focused on the things that matter and were seeing the world clearly, we should probably be saying 'Wow' several times a day. Anything else is a waste of a life.

Monday, 5 July 2010

A bid for freedom

Last month we managed to pay off over £500 off debt. This included a couple of hundred pounds to close a credit card, a regular loan payment and dribs and drabs to various other accounts. To get to the stage where we could pay off so much in one month and not be totally deprived is wonderful.

A few years ago, before the credit crunch, we were bobbing along paying off just the minimum payments and going into our overdrafts every month. Around 2006, I remember seeing the front page of The Economist magazine. I knew nothing of finance and economics back then, but I remember the title splashed across a row of foreclosed cartoon McMansions was something along the lines of 'Time's up for the American housing bubble'. I remember it gave me an uneasy feeling, not least because we as a nation tend to follow where the US leads on just about everything, bonkers financial models included.

At around the same time I came across the concept of peak oil, in National Geographic of all places. The more I read, the more I realised that we were heading into a period of huge financial instability. I began to take debts more seriously; but whilst a step in the right direction, our efforts were half hearted.  Falling pregnant with Gus, whilst a shock, was actually our saving grace. We ploughed our efforts into paying off debts, moving them around to zero interest deals and paying a small amount into savings each month. We are aiming to have cleared the remaining credit card and overdraft by the end of 2010, and perhaps pay off the loan early if it is cost effective to do so.

To get to this point, our mindset has had to drastically change:

  • I think the most valuable thing that we have done is to write a realistic budget. We have been doing this seriously since february and it is in this period that we have paid off the most debt, which can't be coincidental.
  • We pay extra debt repayments at the beginning of the month, before we have a chance to fritter away the money.
  •  We generally withdraw cash to pay for everyday things instead of using a card. This makes it easier to shop in our local grocers and we do spend smaller amounts at a time. I still have the bizarre idea that it isn't fair on the shop to spend less than a fiver on my card, which as the big chains don't charge for small amounts, is absolute madness on my part.
  • We do an online shop every 2-3 months for our bulk goods. I started doing this in the run up to giving birth, we stocked up on dry goods and 200 tins of cat food (I kid not) so that we didn't have to do much shopping in those first few months with a new baby. It worked out brilliantly. I hate supermarkets, I hate spending money on petrol to travel to supermarkets and I like having everything on hand that I need to prepare a meal and get me through a few lean weeks if need be (and  look at the panic buying that ensured following the snow last winter). I also don't impulse buy when I shop online.
  • We now buy the best quality we can afford, or we buy second hand, we freecycle and most importantly...
  • ...we ask ourselves whether we need the thing in the first place. Less stuff = less stuff to maintain and less clutter.
  • We eat very little meat and lots of pulses and eggs and things. Vegetarian is definitely cheaper.  I have also started to work out what constitutes a healthy portion of something so that we waste less and still get everything we need from our food. 
Scones I made for Father's day

    • We cook a lot from scratch.
    • We save our pennies, literally, in a glass flagon on the mantelpiece. As a result of usually withdrawing cash to pay for things, there is always change left over; and it is amazing how quickly it tots ups. In the aftermath of the bank run on Northern Rock I think it is a good idea to always have some cash in the house.
    • I read forums, such as the Old Style Money Saving board over at MSE, which are invaluable for support and ideas. Blogs such as Down To Earth and Tipnut are full of good ideas too. Having a few flesh and bone friends around you who are interested in a more frugal and sustainable way of life is a bonus if you can find them (or convert them!).
    There are many things we can improve on and we still have a way to go. So my money saving goals to the end of 2010 are:
    • I will take a packed lunch into work. This brilliant tool has told me that not only would I save about £450 pounds a year, but that that £450 represents 1.5 weeks of my working life.  I will also make sure I have sweet treats and baked goods around the house so that we do not go out and impulse buy.
    • I will start making my own laundry powder again. I used to do it to wash Gus's nappies and saved a pretty penny, then just got out of the habit. I am actually pretty good on the green cleaning front though. Admittedly it only saves a few pounds a year, but that is better than nothing and I find it fun in a geeky way.
    • I will work through the craft stash that I have before I buy any more. I will also start creatively recycling as much as I can so that I have craft materials to work with. 
    Salvaging seed beads from my favourite, but unfortunately worn out, bag.
    • I will look carefully at our energy usage and try to cut back. I particularly want to make sure that we use less heating in winter, which means a bit of DIY and sewing over the next few months.
    I have many things that I want to achieve and these money saving ones overlap with many of my other goals. But ultimately, having no debts means that we are in effect, free human beings - which is a good place to begin a new life from.

        Thursday, 1 July 2010

        Now the nights are drawing in...

        It must be a week now since the solstice? I can feel a nip in the air, I swear...

        This is the jumper I have been planning to make for my darling OH for the last 12 months and today I managed to find the perfect yarn. I am not unfortunately of unlimited funds when it comes to yarn and aran can be pricey, but this was 40% off and so I jumped at it. It has brightly coloured 'nebs' spun into the charcoal grey yarn and is a beautifully soft wool/alpaca/synthetic mix.

        Today I visited my local yarn shop. This weekend it closes its doors for the last time and my local community becomes a little less complete. I am sad, not least because an independent shop has closed, but also because in those early lonely months with a new baby, the odd visit to that shop kept me sane. I think it can only be a good sign that it is closing for personal reasons and not due to the recession that is killing off so many other retailers. It must mean that people are relearning old skills and spending their money accordingly, which can only be a good thing. In an age of passive consumption, the sense of satisfaction and security that being able to make something for yourself gives is priceless.

        This month I have visited the shop a couple of times to stock up and take advantage of some of the clearance offers. In  addition to the aran, I purchased ten balls of Sublime extra fine merino DK in various colours (so soft and richly coloured, it is wonderful to knit with) and some 4-ply cotton to crochet and knit some more dishcloths, which are unfortunately far too addictive.

        I now regret buying some purely synthetic yarn to make a jumper for my son. Whilst its quite good quality as synthetics go, I know that when knitted into a garment it will pill and stretch too readily. I read an interesting article (whilst chopping up my magazines) about 'Precycling', which basically means to avoid waste altogether by thinking long and hard about what you consume before you even consume it; and making wise choices (along the lines of reduce, reuse, recycle) after you take possession of it. In future I will make sure that I buy as hard wearing and classic a yarn as I can afford so that when the original garment is worn out after many years of use I can frog it or felt it and turn it into something else. The gift of yarn that just keeps on giving!


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