Friday, 11 October 2013

Fuelless cooking

After three or four years of discussing the idea, I finally made a hay box cooker.

A hay box is a method of fuelless cooking. It is something of a misnomer, because whilst the box does not use fuel to cook the food, the food has to be brought up to temperature using a separate heat source before it is placed in the box. The hay box itself is heavily insulated and completes the cooking of the food by retaining the heat already contained within. There also may be no hay involved - the box can be insulated with just about any material that sufficiently stems the loss of heat.

Ours is made from an old wooden crate, a pillow case, some newspaper and a couple of bags of hay, a total expenditure so far of £4. I lined the crate sides with a good thick layer of newspaper and added a bag of the loosened hay to the bottom. The pot sits in this.

 The second bag of hay stuffed into the pillowcase comprises the lid. I added a few sheets of newspaper and a folded sheet to cover the whole thing too.

I am currently scouting around for an Ottoman or other piece of furniture that I can integrate the cooker into; one that doubles up as a usable surface. I suspect that I can increase the heat retention significantly with a square box and more layers of insulation; but even this knocked together version.

I really wish I hadn't procrastinated for so long on this, it has been so satisfying to finally achieve. I somehow got trapped by the idea that I had to get everything perfect, when I could have made a good-enough hay box cooker all along . I am currently scouting around for an Ottoman or other piece of furniture that I can integrate the cooker into; one that doubles up as a usable surface. I suspect that I can increase the heat retention significantly with a square box and more layers of insulation; but even this knocked together version.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Recent reading

Recent, to me - the content may me antique  : )

UK personal debt statistics from UK Charity Credit Action.

Cheap food - the end of an era?

Growing mushrooms in buckets.

Slightly straighter talking than FlyLady, sweary inspiration for the really domestically challenged.

Homemade chalk paint recipes for upcycling tatty furniture.

A pictorial guide to our cutest summer beetle.

3-Bee printing - it's the future.

Have a lovely weekend.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Upcycling again

We have needed some drawer space downstairs for quite a while now - say, the five years since we moved in - for all the of the shoes and hats and nappies and small things that can't be easily corralled on our open shelves. A nice high surface for my spinning wheel out of the way of pingling hands wouldn't have gone amiss either. Trawling local eBay listings and secondhand furniture shops, for all the other awesome pieces it brought us, had failed to turn up a sturdy chest of drawers of  suitable size and price.

And then, it came to us, the perfect chest. We salvaged it from a house refurbishment around the corner in return for a few bottles of home brew beer. It pays to be plucky when you see a piece of furniture sat forlornly in a front yard. It would fit this gap perfectly if not for a plug socket in the way and it has been stood up on overly tall temporary blocks until a more stable solution could be found. Also, that pink colour? Not our thing at all. As you can see, darling daughter tried to spruce it up a bit using her newly found mad crayon skills, but to no avail. Still, it has held our shoes and hats and suncream and spinning wheel admirably well, which was perfect enough after years of no storage. 

After months of procrastination, however, I finally reached the limits of my tolerance for  the unwipable dingy pink surface this week. It had to go.

I didn't choose the new colour (B&Q matt emulsion in Pacific) and I was rather skeptical of my man's choice that it was going to turn out well. I made my own chalk paint using 1 part Plaster of Paris to 3 parts emulsion, with a little water to thin. The advantage of mixing Plaster of Paris into the paint is that most surfaces will not need to be primed or sanded, the paint sticks very nicely to existing layers of paint. It also goes a long way - I have two litres of unmixed turquoise blue emulsion to use up.

Of course, the whole project took much longer than the two days I had budgeted for, to the point I seriously considered it may be easier to learn to love a half blue/half THAT pink, handle-less chest of drawers than to actually continue.  The original wooden handles were of a bizarre, half jointed, half screwed construction that resulted in some unforeseen sawing, gluing, filling and drilling. I built up three coats of paint instead of the expected two thanks to a few greasy toddler hand prints from an ill timed lunchtime interlude. The third coat was sealed the moment it was dry with quick drying matt varnish whilst said toddler was asleep; and another coat of the varnish has left a tough, wipeable surface.

Whilst I liked the colour, I still wasn't entirely sold on the new look until the new pewter handles were installed. Then, it was perfection. I just need to make some shorter, sturdier furniture blocks to raise it up a couple of inches over that annoyingly placed plug socket and I can say that it is done. And totally worth all the blood (yep), sweat (in this weather, yes) and tears (/swearing).

Saturday, 25 May 2013


Not much spinning has been done around these parts lately. When I moved blogs I expected to be doing a lot more spinning and a lot more blogging about it. The name Freya's Rainbow comes from my spinning wheel - Freya - and well, the rainbow was supposed to be all of the lovely yarn that we would be producing together. It didn't happen.

When I bought my wheel, she was in good condition, merely requiring a drive band to get going. I had a full few months of spinning happily away before I forgot to put her up out of pingling range; and walked into the dining room to find Elsa had pulled apart the scotch tension mechanism, stretching the small springs well past the point of no return.

Last week I finally got around to ordering an Ashford spinning wheel maintenance kit (I bought mine from This had the scotch tension springs and enough other spares to do a full wheel service.

I started out by disassembling the easy to strip parts and washing the whole wheel down. There was actually quite a lot of grease, dust and rust to remove when I got into it. As I went, I polished each piece - it turns out that winter balm makes for a very good wood conditioner.

I replaced the leather strap that connects the treadle to the conrod (the baton that connects the treadle to the crankshaft and makes the wheel turn every time you put your foot down). I assumed mine would need replacing in the future, but I couldn't believe how worn it was when compared to a brand new one:

As I stripped it down, I realized a little TLC had been in order for quite some time. All of the hooks and metal fixings were tarnished and in need of replacement:

A new scotch tension (the only thing that really needed to be done was, of course, the most finnickety and difficult):

 A final coat of polish:

We are up and running again:

I am a little out of practice, it would seem.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Extending the Table

Variations on this article have been doing the rounds over the last few years and for some reason have been popping up in the UK press this week. They are all a showcase of the book Hungry Planet by Faith D'Aluisio and Peter Menzel; yet another book which someday I will get around to reading. It is a photo journal of families around the world, the food they consume and the money they spend on it.

The UK example was horrific, which surprised me. Minuscule amounts of fresh fruit and veg and plenty of heavily processed foods, fat and sugars. And then of course there were the examples of countries where there was clearly not enough food of any kind. Darfur was a particularly poignant example, I wonder if that would even provide the basic weekly calorie requirements for that family. The more northerly, more western and more wealthy examples by contrast often had massive calorie overload.

Somewhere between the gluttony and paucity were the happy mediums. The agrarian societies where there was plenty to eat, plenty of fresh produce, good protein, plentiful basic staples and modest fat and sugar consumption. Some of the western nations that have held on to their food traditions managed it too. These were the pictures that left me wanting to head to the kitchen and cook. Omnomnom, give me eggs, barley and leafy greens to work with!

I have been stuck in something of a late-winter rut and we have found ourselves eating more cheese, meat, dairy and less fruit and veg in recent months. I treated myself to a new cookbook to see if it would lift me from my rut. 

Extending the Table describes itself as 'Recipes and stories in the spirit of More-with-Less' (The book by by Doris Janzen Longacre). I have been hankering after a copy of More-with-Less for many years since I saw it so highly recommended by so many thrifty cooks. I chose this one because it was considerably cheaper on Amazon marketplace, at a very reasonable £3.50 including P&P. It is thicker than I had expected, spiral bound and robust. The book is published by Mennonite Central Committee and as such there are testimonials throughout from church members dotted across the world. Some are terribly sad, others humorous and hopeful; all of them are easy enough to disregard if you wish.

This is an international cookbook with recipes from almost every country on earth. There are chapters on beverages, breads, soups, salads and vegetables, grains, legumes, stews and mains, feasts, meats and fish, snacks, condiments and desserts. This is how most of the world cooks and eats – basic staples, fruit and veg from local food sheds. All of the recipes are certainly achievable in a world of supermarkets and gas cookers, where we are not tied to our own food sheds – but most readily adapt to local seasonal produce with a little imagination.

I think this would be a particularly wonderful cookbook for a student or someone finding themselves in a kitchen for the first time. There are basic recipes for a range of meals from curry to noodle dishes to casseroles and cakes. The focus is on cheap, easy to prepare and tasty food. I have been dipping in and out and using it as inspiration as I am not one to generally use a recipe when I cook; and it is doing a wonderful job in getting me out of my rut. One day I will add More-with-Less to my kitchen shelf too.

Spiral bound cook books rock, by the way - a spiral binding and wipe clean cover is the mark of a cook's book. Leave dust jackets to the chefs.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Thrift Thursday: the penny jar and the fraction

This week I have been up to financial mischief. New ISA opened, new budget in progress, cashback signed up for - and the penny jar emptied and counted out. It feels good to be on top of things, especially looking back on where we were financially five years ago. Making the most of our money and managing our finances on a day to day basis requires us to find ways of thinking about it that make sense to us. This just happens to be one of mine - it might seem a little bizarre, but bear with me.

An experiment for you:

Take any of your financial goals - whether that be clearing your debts or saving for a rainy day. What fraction of your total goal does £1 represent?

Now take your original figure and multiply it by 100, to find the total in pennies. What fraction of your total does 1p represent? A ridiculously small fraction?

For all those long years of paying down the debts, I kept a piece of paper with those fractions on in my purse, so that I would see it every time I spent money. I seem to remember I actually had fractions written down  for all coin denominations. I know that it sounds bonkers, but it brings intangible figures down to earth.  A penny seems so small - hell, a pound seems inconsequential. Yet every extra pound we paid off each month wiped months off of our repayment plan and pounds off of the total interest paid. And now the debts are gone? Every £1 we spend or save represents 1/20,000th of our next financial goal. Every penny, 1/2,000000th.

Many potential impulse buys don't round up or down neatly to a pound, or even reach the pound mark. Many of the financial decisions you make may boil down to 'its only the difference of a few pence/pounds'. Everyone will do their own cost benefit analysis in the moment to decide whether it is worth them worrying about a 7 pence difference in flour prices, but The Demotivator at MSE is eye opening if you struggle to see how the pennies add up over a year. My personal weakness of buying chocolate at work as often as twice a week adds up to £70 a year, for example. Ouch. Buying the middle of the road tinned tomatoes over the premium saves around £20 a year - a few hours wages right there, saved from going into a bolognese that doesn't care for pretty labels much anyway.

The penny jar is an essential financial tool in our house. All of the loose change generated by our day to day transactions goes into the jar. It is mostly pennies, tuppences and five pence pieces, with a few larger denominations thrown in. When the jar reaches the half full mark, we empty it out, bag up as many full coin bags as possible; and take them to the bank. I also think that it is wise in this age of banking insecurity to have some hard currency to hand, however little. I counted out our coins once again this week. 2958 pence in total, or £29.58. Not that much? Actually, that's almost 1/676th of our goal, through passive loose change management.

Strong inflation and low interest rates over the last few years has hammered savers - but then it really depends what you are saving towards. A devalued penny in an emergency fund is better than no penny at all. If you are paying down debt, especially at record low interest rates, then every penny saved and put towards that counts for much more than if you put it in a savings account. Every penny and every pound extra you put towards your debts will reduce the final interest rate you pay and your final debt free date. Incidentally, if your debt interest is calculated daily, don't wait until your jar is half full - pay down small amounts as often as you can, even if that means taking £2 in loose change into the bank once or twice a week. It will save you money and it feels good. Every penny does count.

How do you manage your loose change?

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Springtime iced tea

The living is easy in spring! The back door is open and we flow in and out of the house as the mood takes us. Yesterday I managed to get through a lot of housework, cooking and washing up. The weather has been lovely - warm and breezy. I smoked through 5 loads of laundry and I have another two under my belt this today. The first, crisp, line dried bedding of the year will be going on the bed this evening. Bliss.


Spring and summer are months for mooching off of mother nature. No extra energy (money) need be applied to warming the house, drying the laundry...or making tea. The herbs in the back border are springing up with no effort on our part. Yesterday was also Earth Day, time to celebrate its gifts! Our patio is a sun trap that is usually several degrees warmer than the street and yesterday it was warm enough to brew sun tea. I stumbled upon this concept on an American blog a few years back and have since made a few different versions and read lots of different recipes and methods. Always on the lookout for ways to reduce our fuel use and keep our kitchen cool in the summer, neither of these methods require use of the kettle. Also, you get tea!

There are a few hard and fast rules. Consistent direct sun and warm air temperature are required. Alternatively you can brew tea in the fridge if you leave it to steep for long enough - that method is actually considered safer, as lukewarm water left for several hours may be a breeding ground for bacteria. The jar should be cleaned thoroughly to reduce the chances of nasties ending up in your tea. I have made few different versions, but today's is very light. When summer is in full swing I will be making a huge jar that lasts through to the next day. The larger the quantity, the longer it will need in the sun.

* * * * * *
 Springtime Sun Tea - 2 servings

1 pint cold water
1 1/2 tsp loose leaf black tea
2 large sprigs each of fresh mint and lemon balm
Sugar and ice to serve (optional)

Place your tea ingredients into a lidded glass jar and place outside in direct sunlight for at least 4 hours. Alternatively place in the fridge for at least 6 hours, until desired strength is reached. Shaking the jar occasionally speeds up the process.

Place the jar in the fridge until cold. Strain into glasses and serve.  

* * * * * *

This is a very different tea drinking experience to hot tea. Lukewarm and cold brewing draws out different compounds at different rates to boiling water. I hate hate HATE chamomile tea with a passion - or at least I did until I made it in a jar in the fridge. Lovely stuff! I will never ever make iced tea from hot brewed tea again. That method brings out the bitter tannins and roastiness -  this one draws out the delicate summery fruity, floral flavours.

I also happen to know that a tot of whiskey or rum and some soda water doesn't go amiss in this after the kids are tucked up in bed. Ahem. 

Happy St George's Day!

I hope you enjoy this green and pleasant land today. We will be in the garden, doing our bit to make it it a little greener and more pleasant.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

The news diet

I stumbled across this summary by Rolf Dobelli of his thoughts on why 'the news' is bad for us,  ironically, whilst catching up on dreadful events unfolding an ocean away in Boston. Dreadful events that I have no personal connection to and can do absolutely nothing to alleviate, yet felt enough of a mix of compassion (good) and morbid intellectual curiosity (not good) towards that I was reading a live blog about it.

An awareness of world events is useful up to a point; and once upon a time that would have meant a morning newspaper of yesterday's news and a 10 minute evening radio bulletin. Now we have 24 hour news channels, online newspapers updated every minute and a plethora of DIY media where anyone can put their experience out there (including me). And sometimes, this is a force for good. Mostly, we don't see the wood for the trees.

Whilst I disagree with many of his assertions, I can't disagree with the thrust of Dobelli's article regarding 'the news' . We haven't had regular access to TV news for several years now - and when I do find myself watching it, I find it overwhelming. Too much graphic detail, so much negativity. Horrible things happen every single day and humans can be complete shits to each other. But I also know that good things happen, every second of everyday, and humans can be awesome. That experience is not reflected back to me in the news. In the wake of Boston, the speculation surrounding the mechanics, the motives and dynamics of the plot and plotters far outweigh the coverage of the people that came together to help. This stuff is bad for our mental heath.

The day we realised the TV aerial on our new house was not wired in changed our lives. We watch less news and instead of mindless channel surfing we watch a handful of shows and films on DVD. We get to choose where we focus our attention - even if I do occasionally get sidetracked by live blogs. I have more time to be a productive kind human. I am taking a break from my remaining news outlets - one week, cold turkey, no 'news'. I have done it before and after a few false starts (it is an almost automatic reaction to check a news website in the morning with my coffee). I suspect that I might enjoy it more this time and extend it for a little longer.

Happily, this gives me more reading time to devote to my favourite blogs - the majority of which catalogue  human adventures in trying to be productive and kind human beings. Keep them coming please :)

Friday, 19 April 2013


Spring has well and truly sprung today. This should have happened sometime in early February, but we have shared the crazy mad weather that the rest of the country has put up with this year. But today, finally - today was a fine day to spend an afternoon on the allotment. In flip flops. The highlight of my week? The moment this morning that I realised that (six weeks late) flip flop season was upon us. 

High on sunshine, we have been so bold as to plant out our squash plants. This is winter squash 'Jaspee de Vendee' from Chase Garden Organic Vegetable Seeds, started off indoors in newspaper pots as Cucurbits don't generally appreciate having their roots disturbed. If a heavy frost should kill them all in the next week, we still have time to get some more going through early May. According to the many enticing stories about this squash I have gathered on the Web, I am to expect a bumper crop of sizable, super sweet and tender squashes that are ideal for desserts. The worst that anyone has said of them so far is that they are a little ugly for a squash - probably not one for glorious autumnal photo montages then.

We didn't bring anything to mark their position and so instead utilised our plot's most abundant resource - stones. Each plant sits in a foot-wide circle(ish) of stones making them noticeable enough that we won't tread on them. This had the pleasing side effect of allowing the watering we gave them to stay put and seep into the soil around them instead of running off in all directions; and it also gives us a nice target area to heap on the compost over the season.

I love squashes and pumpkin. I think it has as much to do with my love of autumn as for their delicious creamy sweet flavour. I love the fact that you can use every part of them from the skin to the seeds. I love the fact that you can put them on a cool shelf and they will carry you through to February. Protection and watering concerns aside, building little stone monuments to honour them seems a perfectly productive use of my time (you know, just in case I am wrong and that there are in fact supernatural pumpkin spirits to placate). These plants will be mollycoddled like no other.

And,  once again - it is flip flop weather, finally. Which means summer is only a month or so away. And then, it will be autumn! Plenty of good things to do and see and eat between now and then, followed hopefully by lots of squash filled baked goods.

What is going on in your garden?

Knitting and TED talks

Knitting time is also usually TV or listening time. I like having something to occupy my mind whilst my hands work. TED talks usually deliver a nice short burst of inspiration, just long enough to fit in a few rows and a cup of tea. There has been a flurry of gardening related talks recently, which is even better. I love this one.

Enjoy :)

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Life is maintenance

In these bodies we will live,
in these bodies we will die
Where you invest your love,
you invest your life

- Mumford and Sons 

Why did it take me so long to embrace this? I rallied against the day to day details of life maintenance for so long - and I never did achieve the freedom from ordinariness that I was striving for.

We live in a world of outsourcing. From the cradle to the grave, we have an endless stream of services to take care of us and our loved ones, from the TV babysitter, through nightly dinners of preprepared carrots and ready-seasoned chicken, to the heart specialists that put us back together when we have consumed too much, burnt through too much cortisol and not moved enough. If they fail? We have the undertaker to take care of our dead. The maintenance of humans has been outsourced.

The most frugal among us have so much 'stuff' - and the means to acquire more - that only the wealthiest of households would have had 60 years ago. For all our household conveniences - we have just upped the level of day to day maintenance actually required to run our lives. We don't produce it ourselves much these days - we have a whole country of cheap labour east of here to do that for us. And when we take delivery of it, we do our best to avoid maintaining it - by throwing more money and stuff and time at it.

The things we have, inspite of all our mod cons, seem to require much more maintenance. My great grandmother didn't have wall to wall carpeting, and a worktop food processor complete with 48 hard to clean attachments. She had wood or stone floors and a broom, mop and a rug beater. A knife and a whisk are sufficient food processors if you have to work 40 hours to buy a kitchen aid that you rarely use because you hate to clean it. Her laundry day was hard graft - but I suspect she actually washed a lot less stuff and she wore an apron daily to reduce the number of clothes she got through. We have a hoover, a steam cleaner and biannual use of a carpet washer. All of them are ugly and take up a lot of space. And all of them need to be wiped over and cleaned themselves occasionally. Meanwhile, I still make use of a mop and broom and rug beater for other areas of the house.

It seems the whole of modern life is an attempt to escape the maintenance to get to the fun. But the 'fun' comes at a huge price, if it comes at all. Only the super rich who can outsource everything with no care for money or paid employment have a hope of escaping this. For the rest of us - the adverts lie. And none of us can escape the environmental costs wrought by our increasingly disposable, frantic lives. More stuff, more disposable, cheaply built stuff, is wreaking havoc with our planet and our quality of life. 

Over the last few years I have taken back that which is mine to maintain. I love maintaining my humans and I love the beauty of a garden in full bloom - healthy allotment produce for the win. Laundry is much easier when you love the clothes that you are laundering. Keeping your home tidy is much more enjoyable when you think the furniture is beautiful and the textiles are worth looking after - especially so if you have poured your creativity and time into making them or refurbishing them. None of this has to cost a lot of money. I like doing a little handwashing now and again so a few delicate hand knits only add to my enjoyment of life. I love sweeping and I hate hoovering - guess who won't be having wall to wall carpet in our forever house.

I think this sums up simple living in a nutshell. The motivating values for everyone may be different, but the result is the same - the taking back of the day to day maintenance of our lives and fully embracing it, appreciating it and aligning it with our values as much as is possible - and realising that there is more room for fun and excitement when you spend less time running away from life. Life is maintenace, so you might as well make a life worth maintaining.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

This poem changed my life

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

- Wendell Berry, Manifesto:The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

The whole poem can be read here. I urge you to drop this blog now and go read it.

Sometimes it is hard to put what you want in to words. My vision for my future certainly does not condense into a neat job description complete with handy flowchart of how to get there. The glimpse has flashed in and out of my life for as long as I can remember - infuriatingly flickering at the edge of my vision in careers interviews at school. 'Oh, you change your mind so much! You will want to be something different next week!'. Indeed.

I came across this poem last year and have read it many many times since then. To all intents and purposes it is my ideal job description - that ragbag of ideas and images that have clashed vividly with just about every advised direction I have ever taken. I wonder if I had discovered Wendell Berry when I was 18, would my life have turned out very different?  This poem articulates how I have always wanted to be in the world, but have never had the courage to fully embrace, in the face of others' well meaning opinion . I want to be a mad farmer.

Going through all my old posts gave me plenty of food for thought. All the posts now tagged 'The map chest' are about where we are going what we are doing - our road map as such. What a confused little pup I was back then. I had the vaguest inkling of what it was I wanted, but it was but a glimpse, washing in and out of sight with the tides of life. Simple living, growing things, making things and an innate need to take care of people and planet - all glimpses, but never fully braided together. 

It is all much clearer now. Time to get braiding.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Thrifty thrills in a lean month

So much to do and spend this month, the extra few pounds from the tax allowance increase are going to come in handy. We have actually been putting money away for all of these eventualities over the last year, but that is tucked away in a cash ISA and I would prefer to keep it that way. The interest is nominal, but it is interest. As much as possible will therefore be coming from our wages.

This will be a month of meal planning, batch cooking with religious zeal (something I struggle with) and  finally getting around to eBaying a few things that have been lying around for far too long.

Entertainment - apart from the big events - will be fixing all of those things around the house that we already have the materials for. We are halfway through freshening up the woodwork downstairs with its first lick of paint in (I am guessing) a decade or so.

A few things have been bought. A new pair of almost floor length curtains for £4.50 yesterday that were too good to miss for the living room. The 'old' living room curtains are now up in the cherubs' bedroom. They actually suit that room much bette I spent an hour searching for the cheapest place to buy curtain rings and hooks yesterday, before giving up and just swapping them over with what I had. It turns out there was a surplus of fixings upstairs and a deficit downstairs - which has saved us around £6 or £7.

For Mr Freya's Rainbow, that also means working on the car and fixing up the rust and bubbled paintwork with all of the shihe has accrued

Monday, 8 April 2013

Independence days

I am currently rereading the book Independence Days: A Guide to Sustainable Food Storage and Preservation by Sharon Astyk. I will write a review at a later date, but it is basically a 'why, what and (very basic) how' of personal food growing, storage and security. The title comes from the writer Carla Emery, whose The Encyclopedia of Country Living: An Old Fashioned Recipe Book I will also review at some point (the TL;DR of which will be that that particular book is nothing short of brilliant and I think you should buy it - like, yesterday).

Independence days were the days that Emery managed to feed her family from their own produce, their own pantry, and from local producers. Through the first part of the growing year she tried to sow something every single day. Halfway through the season her focus would switch to preserving something from her garden every day ready for winter. 

It isn't for everyone, but striving for true 'independence days' appeals to me - it suits my temperament, personal ethics and my obsessive love of growing food and being out of doors. In previous years, I have become discouraged at the 'smallness' of our efforts in the face of our annual grocery bill. Our tiny yard and plot seemed like a token shuffle on a long journey to self sufficiency that we will never complete. But that is not the attitude to have is it? As unrealistic as this goal may be at the moment, working towards it gives me some peace and purpose. I hope that one day we make it to an acre, some ducks and space for a root cellar. In the meantime, we do what we can. We have plans for modest food preservation this year, past the ketchup and chutney of past years. I am looking into buying more from local food producers. We are growing some food. 

In fact every day this week, we have managed to sow something. Today it was chervil seeds, yesterday a couple of pots of salad leaves; and in the days before that hyssop, physalis, alpine strawberries, bergamot, achocha and winter squash. Tomatoes have been potted on and moved outside and for the first year ever the aubergines have survived to grow more than two sets of leaves. All good practice for our future farm. In the meantime - who needs acreage when you are having fun?

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Flat Bread

We haven't baked so much bread around these parts in recent months. Our oven was replaced with a fan oven and it doesn't play ball when it comes to baking, or at least, we still haven't learnt how to use it effectively.

But these little beauties - we make these a lot.

When I came to university I came armed with three cookbooks - the first vegetarian cookbook I ever bought, the obligatory 'student' cookbook, and a sketchbook in which I had been collecting recipes, most never tested, since I was fifteen. I still have the sketchbook and I still haven't cooked most of the delights contained therein. There is a recipe however for Swedish Flat Bread, I don't know where I copied it from, but the original is not my own. I have made it many times and it has gradually become more refined - the original makes quite a stodgy tablet of rye bread. What student has rye flour to hand? Gradually, the quantities changed but the good stuff remained and this one has become my own, as much as a recipe ever can be, through use and experimentation and mishap.

A skillet cooked flat bread is the most frugal bread you can make. It is generally unleavened, though I have seen recipes made with yeast or even Bicarbonate of soda. Cooked for mere minutes on the hob, they are frugal in both money and time - and the oven can stay off in the heat of summer.

They seem to be common to all cultures too, made from a diverse variety of grains and with even more diverse spices added. To this basic recipe can be added almost any spice or herb that you want. You can add yoghurt, milk or beer in place of water, or sub in different flours or oils. They can be made into tortilla thin wraps or hearty slabs. I have done all of these things at one time or another, but I always come back to basics:

* * * * * *

Wholemeal Flat Bread (makes 4 large breads)

2 cups wholemeal strong bread flour
1 scant cup water
1/2 tbsp oil (optional)
1/2 tsp salt

Mix the salt, flour and oil together and gradually stir in the water to form a firm, slightly sticky dough.

Knead the dough for 5 minutes on an unfloured surface until it starts to feel soft and smooth. If it is still too sticky knead in a teaspoon or so extra flour.

Now flour your work surface. Split the dough into four and roll out the first ball very thinly into a round the size of your frying pan/skillet.

Cook on an ungreased skillet over medium heat for 1-1 1/2 minutes each side, pricking the surface with a fork to stop air pockets forming.

Repeat with the remaining dough portions.

* * * * * *

We serve these with soups in winter, as they can be made on the hob right alongside the stew. In summer (and spring days like today) they accompany salads, bean pate or cheeses and chutney. Sometimes I go crazy and tear them up into a salad. Regardless, they are best served straight away, but can be refreshed after a day or so by sprinkling with water and rewarming in the pan.

I am in the process of compiling the recipes I really want to pass on to our children - the things we eat regularly and the things that I feel they should be able to cook. This one I think everyone should be able to cook - one of humankind's staple foods, bread, in its simplest form. It is quite tasty, too.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

This guy is awesome

Portsmouth isn't South Central LA (thankfully - I don't like the heat!) but we have food poverty, food deserts and abandoned land just the same. I think this guy has the right idea; and he knows how to spread it:

Friday, 5 April 2013

Seed viability and floating seed.

This is Achocha 'Fat Baby' seed. It was given to me a few weeks ago by a friend who grew it in 2011. It fruited prolifically and she managed to kept quite a bit of seed. These seeds have moved house twice and probably suffered a few other stresses in their journey to me. One rudimentary test for seed viability is to place your seed in a cup of water. If they float, the theory is that air and therefore moisture has got into the seed and it is no longer viable. If they sink, they should germinate.

When I set them in water, all of them rose to the surface. A few hours later they were still floating and I was going to throw them away, but my flighty brain took me from the kitchen for a few hours and they were left to float. 12 hours later, I came down to a jar of water with plump seeds resting on the bottom. Why not give them a chance? 10 days later and we have six plants and a few more on the way.

They will be perfect to scramble along the back fence of the community garden (should we get the go ahead) and I was planning to let them ramble across the shed on the allotment. I was given a few Achocha fruits by the very same friend a few years ago and they were good. They look a little intimidating, pale lime green and covered in soft rubbery spines. Raw I wasn't too fussed about them, but sliced up in a stir fry they were good and I agree with everyone else who says they are a bit like green peppers. They are also low fuss rampant vines that fruit prolifically for very little effort. What's not to like?

I suspect that this seed floating test is a little like 'i before e except after c' - that is, a not particularly useful rule. I will be floating the next few varieties I sow to test this. I am certainly glad I didn't throw this batch out based upon that first day of floating.
Achocha seeds are available from The Real Seed Catalogue (near the bottom of the page).

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Ten things

In the process of moving over my old blog posts to this one, I had to read through each one and recategorise them. I spent two hours reading through what amounts to a diary of three of the most turbulent, change filled, exciting years of my life. It was back in 2010 that we really began to knuckle down and think about what we wanted in life, having started the process a few years earlier before the Credit Crunch hit.

When I started blogging back in 2010:

1. We were in debt. We are now in credit to almost double that debt amount and we put a set amount aside without fail each month. We have a budget that covers everything and we mostly stick to it.

2. We regularly used to run out of basics and be caught unawares by short term changes. We now keep a store of three months worth of basics and try to have something to harvest from the garden allotment during the warmer months. This year we hope to make that a year round deal.

3. We had made a couple of batches of beer from kits and a few not great wines. We are now almost self sufficient in beer brewed from grain and fruit wines. Next up - cider!

4. We regularly used to run out of basics and end up buying expensive basics from The Coop. We now keep a store cupboard with a few months worth of essentials and keep our total food budget around £200 each month.

5. We had a small yard that frustrated our limited gardening abilities. We now have that yard, an allotment, our street frontage and a whole community in which to further expand our horticultural skills.

6. I had never made compost. We now have three compost bins and I love dirt as much as life itself.

7. I couldn't spin. I can now spin. I can also follow almost any knitting or crochet pattern, if I am not winging it and making it up as I go along.

8. We had far too much stuff and a messy house. We now have half the amount of stuff and a tidier, more peaceful home - and it is getting better every day. We also seem to get twice as much fun stuff done these days.
9. I was an introverted homebody with few links in my local community. I am now an introverted homebody who is also involved with two different community organizations.

10. My predominant motivation was fear - fear for what the future may bring, of climate change, peak oil and financial Armageddon. I still believe all that is happening, but I do what I do because I LOVE to do it. The future looks pretty rosy when you are harvesting tomatoes, making chutney, knitting your winter socks, planning community gardens and making stew from your stock cupboard. Those things just happen to make us more resilient human beings too.

When I started writing a blog, I also didn't think anyone would actually read it! Thank you all for reading and commenting. I love writing this blog too! And thank you for writing your own wonderful blogs and sharing your projects, successes, failures, fears and dreams too.

*Edited due to ditziness - Yes, I realize I put the food cupboard in there twice... because over the last three years my brain has nodded off a bit too. Because the real number 4 was of course, that we were the hapless, overtired parents of a 20 month old boy. And now of course we are the tired, less hapless parents of a preschooler and a toddler - and lack of sleep does nothing for your blog post editing skills, even if you have the parenting lark mostly covered ; )*

Sunday, 17 March 2013

The seeds of thrift

This is a musing on all the things I learned the hard, expensive way over the last few years, about that most frugal garden ingredient - seed. Tubers, bulbs, roots are a whole different animal and I am not confident my pocket is tamed enough in regard to those creatures to offer any solid advice. But seeds...seeds are simple. Once you have several years of mistakes behind you, of course.

It begins long before the first sowing. Gardening catalogues are promises of luminous shiny wonder (that you can buy! Heaven!) - and the promise of purchasable shiny wonder is ruinous to the pocket. They usually arrive during the gardening lull of winter, which makes them even more potent. So, take a step back and breathe. Think about the things you actually like to eat or look at; and then narrow it down further to things you will actually be able to grow in the space, soil and climate you have available. Even better, before you buy, see what seeds you can scavenge from gardening friends. Later on, when you have seed of your own, you can participate in seed swaps in your community or even online.

Where to buy seed is an interesting question. I have had excellent germination rates from cheap value ranges  and I have had very poor rates from some of the large seed merchants. I am not convinced that branding and price indicates good viability and so I would suggest starting with a few of the cheaper ranges if you are not particularly concerned by variety.  I wonder if anyone has ever tried to cash in on money back guarantees when they have a particularly poor show? There are also ethical considerations such as organic accreditation and heirloom rescue that the are only taken into consideration by a a handful of smaller niche companies; as always there is a balance to be struck between personal resources and personal ethics.

Once you have your seeds, before you even open the packets - you need to know how to look after your seed. I really didn't realise that even mild but frequent temperature fluctuations were ruinous to seed viability. With the exception of a handful of species, seed can be kept for more than one season if properly stored. There are several handy tables online if you Google 'seed viabilty table', many of which contradict each other and will eventually be contradicted by your own personal experience. The basics of seed storage are as follows:

Cool - In the fridge (not freezer!), or cool spot of the house. Too high a heat will dry seeds out too much, requiring special coddling to get them to germinate. 

Dry - I save those little silicon sachets from parcel deliveries and keep one or two in my tin. Fridges especially encourage condensation.

Dark - The fridge once again, or a cupboard, or an opaque tin.

Organised - Securely stored and labelled with variety, production/collection and sowing dates.

Consistent - All of the above conditions need to remain constant.

Unless space is really at a premium, don't be afraid of sowing 'expired' seed, but sow them more generously than you otherwise would to increase the chances of some seedlings developing. I have Tomatillo 'Violet' seeds that expired 3 years ago and 2 out of 16 seeds I planted this year have germinated. Hopefully I will be able to save more seed if those two seedlings survive. Which they should, because this gardener's shadow is cast across them at least 10 times a day, checking in on them like an anxious new parent.

Saving seed is advanced horticultural magic. The book Back Garden Seed Saving by Sue Stickland is a very good introduction to the pleasures and problems of this topic. I am halfway through and recommend it if you want to save your own seed. Whilst for most varieties it is isn't difficult, some easily cross pollinate or need to be encouraged to set seed. We save the easy ones on a small scale - a sunflower head, a couple of lettuce plants and rainbow chard, a few tomatoes left on the vine and a handful of bean pods. This will save money in the long run and obviously has many other benefits in terms of genetic diversity and species resilience.

I know all of this sounds very simple, but these are all mistakes I made. We grew 4 different courgette varieties just because they were productive - and neither of us really like courgettes. I took the seed tin out in the rain for a few minutes and the resulting condensation turned several packets to mouldy spores. I left unlabelled, open packets in the bottom of our seed tin and came back to a mess of unidentifiable seeds. All expensive, frustrating mistakes when you add them up that I have learnt my lesson from. So, whilst I hope I have all this seed stuff down, is there something I am yet to learn?

Wednesday, 13 February 2013


Well, sitting in the garden didn't work - I have spent the best part of three weeks off of work with what appears to be a post viral syndrome. Two weeks of that I was mostly housebound - and unable to do  anything that would ordinarily make that a pleasant experience - no crochet, no gardening, the barest minimum of housework before muscle fatigue set in and I sat down, tremor wracked. Even reading for long periods was impossible through the soupy haze that has been my brain.

Things are a little better and I can now leave the house without my legs collapsing under me after just a few paces - all good. But this disconcerting experience has left a lasting impression. With far too much down time to mull things over, I realized that my basic level of organization in this little house isn't good enough to carry us through periods of incapacity or extreme stress. Which is a little irksome as I had had an inkling of this before and had just begun my spring cleaning when forced idleness struck. My Beloved did his very best to corral the kids and keep on top of things, but we are still playing catch up now.

Our decluttering efforts of the past few years have worked wonders and we still regularly reassess our possessions and delete as needed. We are left however with a marked lack of beauty and coordination, which is very noticeable when you are staring at four walls for days on end. Especially the bits of wall with subtle never before noticed crayon scribbles. And the slightly chipped skirting boards...that connect to the very chipped door frame. Also that annoying frayed carpet edge that the cat keeps pulling. And what is with those CURTAINS?

In the absence of action, I have begun reading Home Comforts by Cheryl Mendelson - it is a fabulous book, a bit like an intensive home economics course for those who were born into a time of food technology GCSEs. Everything you need to know about keeping house is in here and whilst much of it is advanced finickety housekeeping I will never use, all the basics are covered - routine setting, cleaning, menu planning, pantry stocking and laundry techniques are all in there.

There have been bright spots too. The Kalanchoe that we were given when we discovered we were expecting 5 years ago has flowered once again - for the second time ever. I have cut it back to its base, watered it, de-aphided it, cut it back again; and finally a few months ago moved it from the dingy east facing kitchen window to the last chance saloon that is the west facing living room. It flowered last week and has earned its keep.  If everything else has got on top of me, the fact that I have managed to keep a houseplant alive for five whole years - and that it sits on a windowsill amongst several other very much alive houseplants - is a symbol of my ever increasing domestication.

I bought a cyclamen to celebrate.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Homemade laundry powder, finally!

I haven't made laundry liquid in such a long time, partly because I so rarely go into the city centre to purchase Borax substitute - it really does make all the difference. Instead I have been using all kinds of things - the odd box of cheap commercial powder from the corner shop, grated soap and soda crystals and even bottles of shampoo and shower gel I received for Christmas that I can't use on my body for whatever reason. All quite frugal, but they lack a certain...homeliness. I loved making my own laundry detergent; I loved washing Gus's nappies with it. Such a silly thing to feel empowered by, but I honestly think that making the things we need from basics is good for the soul.

In a fit of enthusiasm I ordered a box of Borax substitute at extortionate price (£2.55, most of that is postage) from Amazon yesterday - only to walk into our local hardware store and find it sitting on the shelf, a freshly stocked new line, at a very reasonable £1.30. I have emailed to cancel the Amazon order, I bought two boxes for that price and supported a small family business at the same time.

Laundry powder makes so much more sense than having gallons of laundry liquid stashed away in our tiny kitchen and so I will be making that in future. There seems to be one recipe on the Internet that has done the rounds since the dawn of time homemaking based blogs. I have no idea where it originated. This is basically that recipe with a little more washing soda added - we live in a very hard water area. I used two bars of homemade olive castille soap for this which made it even cheaper and gives it a pleasant scent. 

* * * * * *

Laundry Powder (hard water)

6 cups (loosely packed) grated soap
3 cups soda crystals
2 cups Borax substitute

Mix the ingredients together in a large bowl. Use a stick blender to pulse the mixture to break up the soap a little. Mix thoroughly with a spoon and store covered in a cool dry place, shaking occasionally to ensure thorough mixing.

Use scant 1/6 cup per load

 * * * * * *
After Christmas this bread tin was full to the brim with a fraction of the chocolate we received - far more than our healthy annual family quota (not that we keep an official tally or anything - it's just this years haul was particularly monstrous, added as it was to the tail end of the Halloween treats. Roll on Easter!). We have used as much of it as possible in hot chocolate and cooking, palmed some off onto visitors and now the rest is hidden away in a small bag

Which means I now have a fancy, if a little large, laundry tin. I will probably double the recipe next time so that it is at least half full!

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Organising seeds

Today I spent an hour organising the seed tin. The tin starts every year beautifully ordered and usually ends it in a state of utter disorder. This year as you can see, it isn't too bad - showing just how much time it spent resting on the shelf, untouched, last year .

I am ashamed to admit that many of the packets have been mistreated. Almost all of the flower seeds are spoilt after the tub they were in was left out in the rain. Millions of years of genetic heritage and hundreds of generations of horticultural tradition and I leave them out in the rain to sprout and decay in their packets. These were obviously the first to be culled from the collection. Of the seeds that escaped being left out in the rain many were half open, spilling their contents into a unique seed mix in the bottom of the tin.

Next to go were the out of date seeds. I've previously kept 'expired' seeds for a couple of years past their sow-by date and have had some success germinating them.  This year I have kept a single out of date packet of Purple Calabash tomatoes - a very ugly but delicious tomato that is my all time favourite. I shall try and germinate the five or six seeds that are left and save some of the seed for next year.

Thankfully, 2 packets of flower seeds survived. Firstly, sunflower seeds collected from our biggest sunflower head last year. Secondly:

The seed sachet survived intact even if the sowing and growing information is lost. I love this plant. I bought one the year we moved in, planted it in deep shade (I really had green thumbs back then) and watched it struggle valiantly on for a few months before it succumbed to mildew. I have never seen a plant for sale since and finally invested in the seed last year. The two seedlings I managed to germinate were killed in the slugpocalypse of 2012. I feel I owe it to this pack of seeds to pass on it's genetic line.

This year I have gone back to organising the seed sachets by family followed by earliest sowing date. As first sowings are made, the sachets can be moved to the back of their family until we come full circle next January, or moved forward a month or so ready for a second sowing. Each family currently has it's own tub - all of those Chinese takeaways dishes stretched to full value.

Despite repeated promises to the contrary every single year, I know that I will be buying more seeds. Browsing the catalogue that arrived last week (self sabotage in action - why did I ever open the thing? See how I could never live up to my promise?) I stumbled across a plant that promises to solve a several decade long lifestyle shortcoming (more on that when the seed arrives) - and well, it would be wrong to order just one packet of seed wouldn't it?

We are going to need a bigger tin when the new seeds arrive, but everything is now in order. And so tomorrow the very best bit begins.

Monday, 21 January 2013


Some of us are beginning to show our age. I noticed my hands this year are looking particularly elderly for a 27 year old - dry, wrinkly creases have appeared across the back of my hands and up over my wrists. Too many summers of baking my pale English rose skin under a hot Norfolk sun have caught up with me - not that I wanted to tan, I just had far better things to do back then than stopping to apply sun lotion. Lesson learnt.

I am trying my best to drink my eight glasses of water a day. A moisturising barrier between my papery skin and the biting wind would also be helpful. We still have a few litres of olive pomace oil left over from soap making and some beeswax of forgotten prior purpose (perhaps just because it smells so nice?), more than sufficient to make something soothing.

* * * * * *

Winter balm

1 30g bar of beeswax, grated
1 cup olive oil
Geranium essential oil
1 clean prewarmed glass jar (1 1/4 cup capacity)

Heat the oil in a bain marie over a a gentle heat. Stir in the beeswax until completely dissolved. Remove from the heat and stir in the essential oil. Pour into the jar and leave to cool. 

* * * * * *

My hands are supple once again. I applied no less than four coats to my lips this morning, each coat being sucked into my skin almost immediately until they were back to their former plumpness. In this short space of time it has been pressed into service not only as a body, hand and lip balm but also as a shaving oil  - and a lubricating oil for the tension knob on my spinning wheel. I suspect it could be used as wood polish too. I love having one jar in the place of many, two ingredients in the place of potentially hundreds. 

I used geranium oil simply because we had it, but doing a little research suggests that it has some application in balancing oily skin, which is very handy for someone whose skin varies between filo dry and butter pastry. Most importantly though, geranium oil is the smell of spring and summer. It reminds me of  one of the happiest moments of my life, sitting drinking tea on the lawn of a hotel in Kathmandu, the walls, window sills and beds riotous with red trailing geraniums. Before that moment, I think, I had actively disliked the smell; now I love the 'greeness' of it. In our garden we had a geranium, 'Attar of Roses', with small delicate pink flowers that appeared at the height of summer and smelt of Turkish delight - I wonder if I were to invest in a bottle of rose oil, the two oils combined might recreate that smell?

Friday, 18 January 2013

Snow falling on toddlers

It was someone's first snow day today...

I expected our 18 month old daughter to appreciate the white stuff a little. She did, babbling inquisitive but accepting noises from her warm windowside seat. Then we decided to take her for a walk. Wrapped in many layers we set out for less slushy pavements and white spaces. She didn't smile through any of it. We set her down on the ground and she fell forward into deep snow. Turns out snow is cold and wet and she really doesn't like cold and wet. We carried her around for half an hour in an ever increasing state of grump until it was time to collect her brother from preschool. The magic was lost on this one.

We the parents had fun though. We met a few new local residents:

My beloved nearly fell down a fox hole:

I took lots of photos of pretty snow covered trees:

We also lamented the loss of childhood. Where were all the ruddy faced munchkins who should have been out building snowmen and throwing snowballs at passing strangers (us)? We saw a handful on our short trek, though the local school was closed, and many a vast expanse of snow lay pristine where it fell.

After picking Gus up from preschool, we stopped to build a snowman and to have a snowball fight of our own. And then it was business as usual - time to settle down inside to thaw out slowly, time for lunch and time for me to go to work.

Today was a good day and once again the fresh air did me good and sharpened my mind. But the snow, the snow added something magical. It was impossible not to be mindful - of every step lest I slipped, of every branch and roof and car in a landscape that had been made new by a covering of white snow and every crisp breath of air that I drew. And whilst it made the urban landscape beautiful, it reiterated that I really was made for wide open spaces and a slower, rural pace of life. One day. 

I hope you also enjoyed your day, whatever the weather!

* * * * * *

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