Sunday, 28 November 2010

Preparing for christmas.

A rare trip to the supermarket last week caused me to adopt my seasonal bah humbug attitude a few weeks earlier than normal. Meandering down the  aisle of pretty christmas lights and baubles and garlands (glittery twinkly shiny stuff in the depths of an otherwise grey winter is one aspect of the holiday season that I can get on board with), thinking that it would keep Gus amused for a few minutes; I had failed to account for the presence of a massive display of  Toy Story 3 merchandise at the end of the aisle. Mine was not the only child within earshot that was clamoring to get out of his trolley seat, though I shamefully admit that he was the only one that took off his shoes in a fit of rage and threw them at a complete stranger's feet. After apologising, I hastily made my escape in the opposite direction, to more screams of protest from the now incensed boy; and turning the corner crashed into another stack of said merchandise. A quick sweep revealed I had walked into a parenting booby-trap, displays of Buzz Lightyear and Woody for the boys alternated with shelves full of Hello Kitty and Disney Princesses for the girls.

I have known, from the tenderly cynical age of ten, that this isn't what the biggest festival of our calendar should be about. Then again, neither is my well honed cynicism and refusal to get into the joy of a seasonal celebration that marks the coldest and darkest time of year. There is a reason that a midwinter festival of some sort occurs throughout the cold and temperate regions of the world, across religions; and who am I to have argued with the recived wisdom of my ancestors? The songs, stories and traditions of this time usually highlight the return of light to the world, tales of hope and redemption, peace and goodwill, the promise that a community could make it through the long harsh nights and bitter weather.  Central heating and air freighted strawberries have successfully killed that spirit for many, but the message should not be lost, especially in the depths of recession and increasing hardship.

That is I think what needs to be regained; and perhaps here in the UK, because we no longer celebrate our harvest festivals, a time for giving thanks for all that has been gathered in the previous year. I know that I need to recapture the joy of the Christmas; and trying to stick it to those who see this merely as an annual merchandising opportunity, whilst not strictly charitable of spirit, would only heighten my joy. This year I will be working Christmas and Boxing Day (yup, nothing screams celebration and sticking it to 'em like a regular day at the office),  I am on a low-fat diet thanks to gallstones (out with the mincepies, stuffed goose, chocolate santa breakfast and cheese and cracker selection then) and thanks to the debt repayment plan I have little money to plough into a celebration.  These supposed annoyances might just go in my favour and actually support my sticking it to 'em quite nicely. I have little money to spend, so I am going to be very careful where I spend it.  I can't binge on regular seasonal fare which means a lot of thoughtful food choices and cooking from scratch.

This week I began my preparations by making salt dough decorations; and being thankful that I have enough food in the depths of winter that I could throw it into pretty craft projects. That seems an appropriate start to a more frugal, meaningful season.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Goat cheese experiment

Sometimes I bite off more than I can chew in my self reliance experiments, sometimes I have it bitten off for me. On a whim late last Thursday night, Nick bought four litres of goats milk that were selling for 10p each - having had the brilliant idea that 'we' could try and make curd cheese.

I have seen it done when I was small and understood that it is the simplest cheese making experiment you can carry out at home. All that is required is warmed full fat milk, to which lemon juice or vinegar is added to curdle it. This mixture is  then strained for a few hours through muslin, separating the curds and whey. The result is a spreadable soft cheese at very little cost. 

The first mistake I made was to think it a good idea to process all four litres at once. I started out following these basic instructions, deviating when it became apparent I was way out of my depth. The milk warming went well, I used a preserve making thermometer and a large stock pot. So far so good. I added the juice of a lemon that had accompanied the milk home from the shop. Nothing happened. No worries, I'll juice another. There were no others. OK, I'll use bottled lemon juice. I haven't kept bottled lemon juice in the house for at least two years. Oh.

It was with great scepticism that I poured in several tablespoons of red wine vinegar, the scepticism only increasing when I realised that cup volumes were obviously what was called for. When that had run out, I was all ready to give up, but as it was impossible to make the concoction any worse, I persevered and poured in a spoonful of malt vinegar. Finally the curdles began to appear.

Next came the straining. I keep a quantity of muslin for wine making, so placed a huge square of it doubled up in a colander (thankfully this is huge, comprising the steamer basket of an old pressure cooker). After half an hour, enough whey had drained that I could tie the muslin into a bundle, to be suspended from - where exactly? The bundle weighed the best part of 4 kilos! In the end we placed two dining chairs back to back, tied the top of the bundle with some spare shoelaces and tied the laces around the top rungs of the chair backs, suspended above a basin to catch the whey. In tying the knot we managed to squeeze a fair amount of the contents of the bundle over the chairs and hallway carpet. Several hours later it hadn't finished dripping, so I left it overnight and hoped for the best.

I needn't have worried. The cheese has an acidic tang to it, but is not vinegary, and is deliciously creamy. The only thing that the vinegar has added is a slightly pink tinge to the curd. I estimate that we ended up with over a kilo of curd, some of which is sitting in the fridge and some of which has been frozen into portions for stirring into pasta dishes. A quick survey suggests that ordinary curd cheese retails for around 40p per 100g, curd cheese from goats milk would be higher than that. The milk in this instance cost 40p, the lemon and vinegar a grand total of about 60p, the sea salt pennies.

Unfortunately, whilst scouring the Internet for curd cheese recipes, my eyes have been opened to the possibilities of real home cheese production. I have seen wondrous shops selling rennet and spores and waxes and molds and other stuff I don't yet know what to do with, but would like to one day. Another year perhaps...

Friday, 12 November 2010

Eating seasonally

Starting this autumn I have really been making an effort to use seasonal produce. We did reasonably well last year, the first time that I had made a concious effort every time I went shopping,  but I found our diet a little bland and lacking in variety. I don't wish to besmirch my country's culinary heritage, but I can't say I find it particularly inspiring. 'British' cooking is meat and dairy heavy, and fruit and veg have taken a back burner to the extent that I would argue that we really don't know what we are doing with them, at least when it comes to maximising their flavour and nutritional value. We do meat well, especially in joint form. We produce some amazing cheeses. We do a nice line in comfort puddings too - suet puddings, fruit pies, and cakes feature heavily and what's not to like about that? Obviously there are regional differences too between Scotland, Wales, Ireland and England.

I would say the majority of Britain no longer cooks 'British', bar the odd roast. The popularity of bolognese, lasagna and other pasta dishes, as well as kormas, stir frys, fajitas and chilli con carne against steak and kidney pie and 'native' fish dishes is evident in TV cookery shows, magazines and restaurant menus.  This isn't all bad, but there is a problem with trying to eat this diet all year round. 

A recent post at Casaubon's book posed the idea that taking inspiration from the seasonal dishes of other nations can help you make the most of the seasonal produce you have. The operative word being seasonal. I remember from A- Level geography that the classification of world climate and biotic zones is more complicated than I would ever care to remember, but I know that to eat Italian style food all year round in a climate such as ours requires us to import out of season produce for most of it. Looking to the cuisines of Northern and Eastern Europe makes sense then when you want to cook a cabbage more imaginitively than steaming it. I have saved my Encyclopedia of Eastern European food from the eBay pile. It's full of delicious recipes that use our familiar winter vegetables. A lot are admittedly meat and dairy heavy, but there are also plenty of fish dishes, 'peasant dishes' with pulses and vegetables and delicious fruit deserts. Last night I made a stew of seasonal root vegetables with sweet and warming smoked parika. A stew made with imported bell peppers and basil or oregano just wouldn't have cut the mustard on a brisk rainy day like today.

I have a feeling I am not quite as well informed as I might be about British food traditions. I admit a prejudice against many of our great traditional recipes because my system just can't handle that much meat and dairy every day (except Stilton cheese, I can eat that on oatcakes until the cows come home. Or I am hospitalised with gout, whichever comes sooner). I recognise that British foods survived deepening wartime rationing for well over ten years, which would ravage any food culture. I think we are missing something by eschewing our traditional grains for  breakfast cereals and tons of pasta; and tea and cake for instant coffee and 'blueberry' muffins. But for all my searching, I can't find any evidence that we know how to use carrots or chard, sprouts, beetroot, spinach, turnip, tomatoes, cucumbers, peas, beans, marrows, mushrooms, watercress or pumpkin, or the culinary herbs that grow so well here to bring out the very best in them and make them the focus of a feast. In a world where we are going to be increasingly reliant upon local seasonal produce from lower down the food chain to sustain us, we need to know how to make food for the body and the soul. On that front, I think, we might need a little help from our international friends.

Monday, 8 November 2010

As it turned out...

to do lists are a great idea! Almost everything on the list is complete, I substituted a few tasks for some other jobs that have been bugging me for a while. Today I was flicking back through my notebook to some older, bolder to-do lists written a few months ago. I can tick most of the items off the list - sell at carboot sales, purchase new sofa, start making wine, clear out the garden, plant some tree seeds, paint the living room, throw a halloween bash, pay down debts, return that two year overdue library book, plan a food budget and pantry, declutter the house, get a dining table.... We have managed to get them all done in the past few months, plus a few more. There are still lots of things to be doing, but it was satisfying to tick off all the little things that we had managed and also a few that were no longer important for us to do.

This month we have managed to pay off over half of our outstanding debts. That means that our debt free day has been brought forward from 'indefinite', to the end of February 2011. I can't say how relieved I am about this, that in a few months we will be using our wages to build our finances and to fund the things that we want in life, rather than funding the interest payments on loans taken out before we were wise enough to realise the rules of the game.

So all in all it has been a productive week and a productive year. Which is progress, because most years of my adult life have been years of consumption, debt and dissatisafction.  I imagine that this is a process that is going on up and down the land, and across the world. People are finding joy in doing things for themselves, in crafts and home cooking and making themselves more secure and resilient and happy, all the things we have strived for for millenia. It is very tough and I know that there is for most people no romance in it, but it is comforting to know that we are making a start.

Thursday, 4 November 2010


It seems that this time of year is a time for getting organised and knuckling down to all the small jobs that have built up over the year. Every blog I read seems to be abuzz with talk of decluttering, rearranging, streamlining and cleaning. It puts me to shame, it really does.

I am not good at daily routines, such as hoovering, laundry sorting and washing up. Just because the laundry made it to the machine and the wash cycle is complete does not mean that the laundry will get hung up to dry, not before it needs a freshen up cycle at any rate. It's this kind of disorganisation that wastes a lot of time and energy in our house; and probably money too.

So November is my month to knuckle down to it too. We have relatives visiting later in the month, which is an excellent incentive to clean up my act. Nothing like public humiliation to spur me to action, apparently. Today I spent a few minutes whilst waiting for the casserole to reheat to organise the kitchen drawers. That tiny little bit of progress felt ridiculously good. I don't have a plan to tackle a room at a time as such, but just to spend a few minutes every time I enter a room trying to make a little headway. I do need to measure my progress, however, so by this time tomorrow:
  • The empty glass bottles that have stacked up over the last month will have been taken to the garage ready to be refilled with home brewed beer when the time comes.
  • I will have pared down and organised  my cleaning supplies. 
  • The kitchen floor will be clear of all objects but the bin, the cats bowls and the rug. 
  • The laundry will have been sorted and put away, some sorted for charity collection. 
  • The dining table will be cleared of paperwork.
  • At least 3 unwanted items from every room will be leaving our house permanently.
This is all incredibly dull and unambitious, I know. But the difference it will make to my house and my mood is immeasurable. 


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