About this blog

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Wales, United Kingdom
In autumn 2010, my husband Ian and I both quit our jobs, sold our house and left the flatlands of the east for the mountains of Wales. Our goal is to create a more self-sufficient lifestyle in a place we actually like living. Whilst Ian will continue to earn some money as a freelancer, my part of the project is to reduce how much we spend by growing and making as much of what we need as possible. The purpose of this blog is to keep friends updated with how the grand project is progressing, but all are welcome here. If you're not a friend already, well perhaps you might become one.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Capel Bangor Show

I wrote half a post about this a couple of years ago and never posted it. The show is now an important fixture in our calendar and we went to this year's show last Saturday. This post covers a mixture of two years ago and last Saturday.

Agricultural and horticultural shows are a major feature of life here. It's possible to spend every weekend of the summer relaxing in a different field, watching horses, cattle, pigs, sheep, and other animals paraded around a ring for your entertainment. Any idiot who organises an event in the same week as the Royal Welsh has only themselves to blame when no-one turns up (yes, we've done that). Our local show is in Capel Bangor, a village about ten miles away, and we've attended for the last three years.

Whilst there are sheep...

... and the shearing competition is well worth watching...

... the show mainly features horses.

Unfortunately, I'm not terribly interested in horses.


Not horses, 2014

The lady to the left of the caravan talked to me at great length about peanut butter cookies (her recipe is very rich), ballet (her teacher cried when she gave it up to do A levels), drinking champagne at the Playboy club, and flummery, amongst other things.

I arranged for our friend Keith to drive a tractor for the first time. It went like this: We were chatting to Brython when his son Sion, who's in charge of the vintage and classic vehicles section, came over and spoke to him in Welsh. After Sean had gone Brython said, a little grumpily, I suppose I'm going to have to drive a tractor, then. Last time I did, I got covered in oil. (He was quite smartly dressed at the time.) Then, to me, Would you like to drive a tractor? Me: No, but Keith would. (He'd told me so earlier in the day.) I went off to find Keith, and told him there was an opportunity to drive a tractor if he wanted it, and he did.


Keith driving Brython's tractor in the parade.
Ian is driving the 2CV in the background.

Sadly, the 2CV is off the road at the moment. Well, it's not really sad because she'll be in much better shape when she comes home, but we had hoped she might be back by now. Ian still takes part in the old vehicle display, in whatever vehicle he has at the time.


Ian's Mitsubishi Colt, bought just a few days before the show. I blame Tim Minchin.

Did I mention tractors?

There was a competition to guess the weight of this one...

... and there was even a little one for children to sit on:

There were other stalls as well. Our friend Mavis had a cake stall.


Most excellent cakes at Make or Bake

While Ian gets involved with the old cars, I'm more interested in the produce tent.

In here may be found competitions for all kinds of garden produce, baking, crafts, photography (Most of which had separate classes for children) and - my favourite section - home brew (no children's class).


Garden produce

At the far end is a class for Vase of herbs, which I entered, but I think I misjudged the criteria. I went for aesthetic appeal, but the others seemed to be more about usefulness of herbs. I suppose I should have worked that out from the fact that it was in the produce section. Also, I may have been marked down for including weeds in my vase. How can you say rosebay willowherb isn't a herb? It's in the name!

I had a suspicion that the pickles and preserves were judged more on appearance than flavour, and filled a narrow jar of pickled samphire very carefully (it's the one with the luggage label, which rather hides how nicely all the samphire is lined up), but to no avail. My friend Jane explained to me that jars should show no signs of having been used before, should have white lids, and white labels should be on the lower half of the jar, but this isn't written down. My samphire came nowhere.

My two entries in the wine classes (rhubarb in the dry white; sloe in the sweet red) both won, in spite of poor presentation (I didn't even clean the old labels off the bottles). This led to me being awarded the cup for wines, which was nice. Honesty forces me to confess that the reason was that the entries for wine looked like this:

Two years ago, the first time I nervously entered a single bottle of wine (nicely presented in a clean bottle), I arrived to find an older couple unloading a crateful of homebrew: Three entries in each category. I felt a bit intimidated by this, and was over the moon when my oak leaf wine came first in its class. I haven't seen them since.

I was more pleased that my bog myrtle ale came second, as there was more competition in the beer classes:

I also entered an interesting fir cone ale, which came nowhere, but the judges drank an awful lot of it in coming to that decision.

It's a lovely day, and very relaxing because there's almost nothing to do apart from mooch around and chat to people. Relaxing, that is, apart from the excitement of the produce competitions!

Thursday, 4 August 2016

A good year for samphire

It's interesting looking back to see that I wasn't that taken with pickled samphire the first time I tried it. That was before I discovered this combination:


A biscuit* topped with mascarpone cheese and pickled samphire

This is divine! With samphire thus elevated to the status of a delicacy, I consider it well worth the effort of gathering it.

There's also vinegar to consider. Last year I attempted to make vinegar. There's a brief note of the result hidden away in this post. Having looked at the relative prices of decent vinegar and pickling vinegar I bought the cheap stuff. It was pretty dreadful but even with that, pickled samphire was good. This year I have kombucha, which will make vinegar from sugar if left alone for long enough. I fed it some of the too-sweet oak leaf wine and now I have some pretty awesome (and very strong) vinegar.

Last Saturday I was in town around lunch time, so checked the tide times and as luck would have it, low tide was about 1pm, so I went up to the estuary (town is kind-of on the way) to check out the samphire.

I could see it - at least I thought I could, as soon as I parked the car.


That bright green strip across the sand was - I was fairly sure - marsh samphire

Closer inspection confirmed this.


Yep, definitely samphire.

I haven't seen such big plants before - these are fantastic. I think maybe I've been later in the season in previous years, after sheep have been allowed to graze here. I spent an hour and a half foraging, and collected rather more than I usually do in in two or more hours. After that, I walked down to the beach.

That's really not a bad way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

Of course, once I got all that samphire home, I had to process it. That means carefully picking it over, rinsing off the sand and any seaweed and small shellfish that I'd missed when picking, and pinching off only the tenderest pieces for pickling, leaving the parts that have a woody core. It took ages, but it's worth it.

A few notes on pickling: For a crisper result, I now know to use cold vinegar. The tannin from the oak leaves should also help with crispness. However, I did heat the vinegar first to kill it. I want an inert pickle, not one that's going to eat its way through the samphire. I also mixed the vinegar with some beer that had been flavoured with rosebay willowherb tips. The vinegar was so strong that it could do with diluting a bit, and this beer adds a complementary flavour. During the heating phase, I infused some garlic mustard seeds, too. Then while I was making a cup of tea and looking at a pan of hot pickling liquid, I poured milk into the pan. Don't do that.

The best thing to do at that point was, I decided, to leave the kitchen and drink my tea. By the time I came back, the milk had separated somewhat, so I strained out the curds, left it to settle, carefully poured off the clearer liquid... repeated. There's a slight cloudiness in the bottom of my jar of samphire, and no doubt there's some whey in the pickling liquid. In that much vinegar I doubt it'll have any impact, but I repeat, I don't recommend doing that. Even so, pickled samphire is still worth it.

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*It's a digestive biscuit, just for Cat ;-)

Monday, 1 August 2016

Gŵyl Awst Hapus / Happy Lammas

Lammas, also known as Lughnasadh or in Welsh, Gŵyl Awst*, is a festival that hasn't been adopted into our modern calendar, though we do have the August bank holiday at the end of the month. It's the first of three harvest festivals, traditionally the wheat harvest.

I don't have wheat or any other grain, but I do have that modern import from the new world, potatoes, and I started harvesting them a few days ago. They're a bit small, really, but I have maincrop potatoes for growing big. I will eat these as they are, and all the better for it.


Today's harvest

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* Literally, August festival

Friday, 29 July 2016

Uncovering the sewing machine

A few weeks back, over on Eco Cat Lady's blog, we were chatting about how quite a few of us feel we ought to enjoy sewing, but don't. My sewing machine is in the spare room and has been getting buried deeper and deeper over the months, so as well as emotional obstacles to sewing (I'm not as good at it as I want to be), there've been physical obstacles in the way, too.

Then last week I picked some blackcurrants - bear with me, this is related. I stewed them and strained them and decided to make jelly from the juice, and wanted something to put lemon pips in (for extra pectin) so I wouldn't have to pick them all out at the end. I've been thinking for a while that it would be good to have a drawstring muslin bag for this purpose, like a large re-usable tea bag. If I had the right bit of fabric, this should be a very small sewing job.

I decided to give it a go. It felt like a lot of tidying up for a bit of sewing so small I could do it by hand fairly easily, but better to do the big tidy with this job than have it get in the way of a bigger project. The combined Big Tidy and Big Sewing Project could well prove too daunting to tackle at all.

Step one was looking for fabric. That brought quick success, and a sense of smugness at being proved right over the de-clutterers. Whether it's worth keeping a cupboard full of fabric for thirty years for the sake of having exactly that piece to hand when I wanted it... well, I suppose that's debatable, but I like having stuff available.

Then I had to tackle all the junk in the middle of the room. No, I'm not showing you a photo of how bad it was. I would then have had to face just how bad it was. I moved things around. I can't say the result is exactly tidy but the stuff is no longer all over the sewing table.

I was rather pleased that I could remember how to thread the machine and adjust the settings and tension in the right direction to stop the thread looping up at the back. In fact, when I watched a nice, even line of stitching emerge from under the machine foot, I was thrilled. I guess my anxiety about sewing incompetence had been building up. I may never be as skilled as my mum was, but you know, I can kind of do this.

And so I have a little drawstring bag, useful for suspending lemon pips in boiling jam, and spices in chutney, and I'll probably find some other uses for it. More to the point, the sewing machine is now accessible, both physically and psychologically.


One drawstring bag, for culinary purposes.

Saturday, 4 June 2016

Better late than never

The title is supposed to refer to gardening, but it could just as well refer to the blog post itself. I've made a very slow start on gardening this year. It started with, I wish I'd cleaned out the greenhouse in the autumn, when proper gardeners do it, and progressed through, Those brambles are getting out of hand, to, If the weather's going to muck around like this, what's the point?

Somehow, though, I did manage to get the greenhouse clean and ready to use, and started clearing beds ready for planting. In the second week in May - rather later than just about anyone else - I got potatoes in the ground...


I couldn't bring myself to dig up that flowering broccoli, and the comfrey is a permanent fixture.

... shortly followed by peas.


The raspberry cane in the middle of this bed was also left, obviously. The comfrey in the far corner is a recent development, but is becoming a permanent fixture.

Both of these are just starting to show their first leaves, which lifts the spirits greatly. My friend Maggs gave me some plants - brassicas and curcubits - which also lifted the spirits. She offered them before asking whether I had any evening primrose going spare. I probably shouldn't have confessed to composting them - they grow like weeds in my garden - but I was glad to have a bucketful to give her in exchange. Today I finished clearing the bed for brassicas and other, so I should be getting those in tomorrow. Maybe I will have a veg garden this year.

Sunday, 27 March 2016

About time

This morning (or yesterday evening, for the organised), clocks across Britain were set forward one hour. This is something that has always irritated me. Why do we need to do this? If we want to make the most of light mornings, why can't we just get up earlier? Why do we need to fool ourselves into thinking that the time is an hour later than it really is?

Here's the thing that irritates me: British Summer Time is not real. The position of the hands on a clock face are a measurement, and as such, should aim to measure as accurately as possible. But what are they measuring, exactly? Well... it gets a little more complicated than you might expect when you try to answer this question. Roughly, it's the position of the sun in the sky, but not relying on actually being able to see the sun, and extended through the hours of darkness, too. It's a measure of the Earth's rotation. As such, Noon should mean the time when the sun reaches its highest elevation in the sky.

There are two things which make this an approximation. The first is the use of time zones. Here on the west coast of Wales, the sun sets fifteen minutes later than it does in London and similarly, noon - meaning the highest elevation of the sun - is fifteen minutes later as well. It used to be the case that every town operated to its own local time, but the coming of the railways made it necessary to keep the same time across the whole country. Imagine trying to devise a train timetable with a different time zone for each stop!

I can see the sense in having the same time across the country, so the time is accurate to within about half an hour. For that purpose we all use Greenwich time (the political choice of a location right at the east of the country is also a little irritating - somewhere in the middle would be better), but what about the mean part of GMT? This is mean in the sense of average and derives from the fact that noon-to-noon is not exactly 24 hours, most of the time. On some days it takes a little more and on other days a little less than 24 hours for the sun to return to its highest elevation in the sky.

The reason for this variation is the eliptical shape of the Earth's orbit around the Sun. I was going to give you a brief explanation there, but then I looked it up and it got complicated. If you're interested, Wikepedia has a lengthy article on the subject. The upshot is that some of the time, a sundial is fast relative to a clock, and some of the time it is slow. When clocks were new, the sundial was taken to be correct and an adjustment was applied to the new-fangled clocks to calculate the correct, sundial time. Nowadays, if you are so inclined, you can apply the adjustment (in reverse) to sundial-time to get the correct time as per a clock.

This leaves me in a quandry. I share the modern instinct that the regular clock, with exactly 24 hours each day, is the more correct measure of passing time, but if the sundial, which reliably reports the position of the sun, is inaccurate, what are we measuring with the clock? The concept time of day has become abstracted away from the position of the sun, and that abstraction opens the door to people mucking around with it, with time zones and daylight saving. This feels wrong, as if we've somehow become separated from a fundamental aspect of the natural world. I am very tempted to set up a sundial in my garden and use only that for timekeeping. If only we had more sunlight.

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Further adventures with wild yeast: Heather ale

After starting off my home brew in the kitchen, I move it downstairs to the store room, which is rather cooler. The lower temperature seems to have been a problem for the wine yeast I used last year, and I have a dozen demijohns full of half-fermented wine. I'm hoping it will get going again when the weather warms up, but I'd prefer yeast that doesn't need much warmth to ferment.

I'd been thinking of buying lager yeast, as that works at lower temperatures than most, but then I had another idea: The wild yeast that I'm using as a sourdough starter seems quite happy in cool temperatures (i.e. winter kitchen temperatures) and I've heard of people getting yeast from sourdough for cider; maybe I could do the same for beer.

I added extra water and left the starter until it separated out, then drained off the cloudy liquid, leaving as much of the floury gloop behind as possible. I don't really want starch in my beer. I added this to my usual heather ale recipe and left it to see what would happen. The quantity of yeast cells in that bit of liquid was probably pretty small, so I gave it longer than I usually would to check for signs of life. That is, I checked for bubbles frequently, but gave it three days before giving up.

Last autumn, I chucked a couple of crab apples in a jar of sugary water in the hope of cultivating wild yeast from the apple skins. The jar was still sitting on the kitchen counter, smelling... possibly alcoholic, possibly just appley - certainly not foul. I poured that in. A day later, I added some more of the sourdough starter, this time being less fussy about the starch. Eventually, I saw tiny which flecks on the surface - little bubbles? I monitored further until it became obvious that the white fleck were not bubbles, but some kind of growth. Oh, *&#%! That is not the kind of life I was hoping to see.


Two day-old pellicle

However, before throwing it all out, I did a bit of research, and learned a new word: Pellicle. This is a layer that forms on top of wort during the brewing of beer. It's the same kind of thing as the scoby that forms in kombucha brewing, but not the same micro-organisms.

While the cultivated brewing yeast doesn't form a pellicle, other strains of the same species can do, so it's entirely possible that wild yeast might do so. My pellicle smelled a little musty, but not too strong or foul. I also poked a dropper through the surface to take a sample of the wort, and that tasted fine, so I left it to see what would happen. A day later, I saw bubbles under the surface.


Bubbles trapped under the pellicle

Bubbles indicate fermentation, so there's definitely something going on, though of course, I don't know what kind of fermentation. It still smells OK, so I'm going to wait and see what develops. At worst, I'll get something that smells and tastes horrible, and I'll have to throw the whole lot away. Alternatively, it might taste of nothing, which is also not worth keeping. Another possibility is that mainly acids are forming, in which case I might have two gallons of vinegar, which is not ideal, but worth something. There's also a chance that I might end up with a delicious and unique beer. I'll just have to wait and see.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Kombucha - getting started

I enjoy a drink of beer or wine, but often as not, it's for the taste rather than the alcohol content. I don't really like sweet drinks with food and, apart from plain water, there aren't many savoury alternatives. My interest in fermented foods led to me hearing about fermented drinks, including kombucha, and wondering whether they might be a good alternative. The first step, then, was to try some and see what it tasted like.


Kombucha bottle now containing home brewed version,
but it looks much the same, I think.

I found a bottle of kombucha in the whole food shop that I buy malt extract from. On trying it, well... it was sweet and fizzy, which wasn't exactly what I was after, but it should be possible to tweak both. The underlying flavour was nice, so I pressed on to Step 2.


Because it is alive, a new culture will form in the bottle

Step 2 was cultivating a mother of kombucha, or SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast). I checked before buying that the drink wasn't pasteurized, which would kill the yeast and bacteria. I saved a little of the drink to breed a new SCOBY from, and put it in a pint of sweet tea (normal black tea - one teabag in one pint* of boiling water, leave to cool then remove teabag and add two tablespoons of sugar). I covered the jar with cloth, put it in a warm-ish place and waited.

A light, white film formed within a few days, but then nothing seemed to happen for ages. It was about a month before I had something resembling a kombucha mother. I'm sorry I didn't take a photo at this stage, but then again, perhaps best not - they're not pretty. Now I had a mother and starter tea (a lot of the yeast cells are in the liquid, apparently, so you need both) I moved on to a larger batch: three and half pints or two litres of water, which is about the capacity of my larger saucepans, three teabags and 100g sugar. This time I used two green teabags with one black one - I have some rather old green tea with mint that needs using up, so I ignored the advice about not using flavoured teas at this stage (apparently the oils can inhibit the bacteria) and chucked a couple in.

This went into a half-gallon jar that once held pickled eggs, scavenged from the local pub. It took a while to get rid of the pickled egg smell, but it's OK now. This being rather heavy, I decided against the top of the cooker as the warm place. The adjacent cupboard gets quite warm, too, as it's against the chimney. I say quite warm - I put a thermometer in there and it read 18°C. It's all relative.


Two jugs were evicted and egg cups were rearranged to make room for this.

In theory, having the jar tucked away at the back of the cupboard should stop me moving it all the time to have a look and see how it's doing, but it didn't quite work like that. In spite of my interference, a new scoby formed within a week, albeit a thin one. I tasted the drink at seven days and liked it, though it's still a bit on the sweet side, if nowhere near as sweet as the commercial one.

I took some photos this time, so you can see what the scoby looks like:

The misty film on the top develops into a cellulose mat. The old one floated up underneath the new one, which is what the beige patches are. The edge is bent down where I poked a dropper through to sample a bit before deciding whether to bottle it.

From the side, you can see bits hanging down from the floating mat. It's supposed to look like this. Apparently this is a good thing.

At this stage, people often add flavourings and a little extra sugar when bottling, for a second fermentation, to produce a little fizz. It's very much like making beer. Since the drink's already a bit sweet, I'm not adding any more sugar this time. Also, at this stage, I'm sticking with the natural flavour, though I'll probably experiment with flavourings at some point.

The main change I'm planning to make is to replace the tea with something that doesn't have caffeine. Apparently it's the tannin that's important, so oak leaves are an obvious choice. I think beech leaves have tannin, too, and also blackberry leaves, which I may try if I don't get round to hacking back the brambles before they put out new leaves in the spring.

I'm hoping that with a bit of playing around, I'll end up with something that's (virtually) non-alcoholic, has no caffeine, almost no sugar, but still tastes good. It sounds like a pretty tall order, when I put it like that, but I think it might be possible. It's got to be worth a try, anyway.


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* I knew that American gallons are smaller than British ones, but it only recently occurred to me to check pints - yes, American pints are smaller too. I'm using British pints.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Dydd gŵyl Dewi hapus

Happy St David's Day! (That's what the post title means, by the way.) To mark the occasion, I'm going to attempt a bit of Welsh:

Es i i dosbarth Cymraeg heddiw. Yn ystod amser cinio, aethon ni i'r caffe yn y Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru. Clywon ni cerdd telyn a bwyton ni picer y mân

I went to Welsh class today. During lunch time, we went to the café in the National Library of Wales. We heard harp music and ate welsh cakes.

Even in that little bit, I'm sure there are mistakes. It's very frustrating having just a little bit of a language, so that you can start to say something, then get stuck for words almost immediately. I'll keep trying, though. Corrections welcome!

Image pinched from our local chocolatier.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Fermented veg: Not just sauerkraut

After my early enthusiasm for fermenting all of the vegetables, I settled down to just sauerkraut. However, seeing that carrots were going cheap in the supermarket recently, I bought a second bag and had a go at fermenting those.

Roughly following a recipe that someone shared in a facebook group, I added small quantities of onion and celery as well as a couple of pieces of crystallized stem ginger (the recipe had root ginger, but I had a jar of the sweet kind in the cupboard). There was something else in the recipe, too - I forget what it was, but I didn't have any.

I wanted to be sure that the ginger (grated, and rather sticky) was evenly mixed with the carrot so, instead of my usual method of adding ingredients in turn to a jar and pressing down as I go, I sprinkled salt over the grated carrots in a bowl first, then mixed the ginger through, and added the other vegetables last, and mixed it all up with my hands. Finally, I packed the mixture into a jar and pressed down. It released enough liquid to submerge everything when it was well squashed.


Fermented carrot salad. The stones are used to keep it under the liquid.

After about a week I tried some and really liked it. I'd wondered whether fermenting the sugar out would lose an essential feature of carrotiness and leave it dull and possibly bitter, but not at all. It just tastes like a tangy grated carrot salad, as if I'd added a good vinegar dressing. It's nice on its own, with cheese or cold meat in a sandwich or, less obviously, as a substitute for chopped tomatoes in cheesy pasta. In fact, I'd say this makes a pretty good alternative to tomatoes in salad, which is great, since I've had no success in growing tomatoes. Unfortunately, I haven't done very well growing carrots, either, but at least they're cheap to buy.