About this blog

My photo
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.

Monday, 26 September 2016

That time of year again

Every year I get seasonal depression around the time of the equinox and every year it takes me by surprise. Every flipping year. At least I'm getting better at recognising it when it does hit, though. I also think that preserving food does help.

Yesterday was a bad day, in a big weepy meltdown sort of way. Today I feel better and I made sauerkraut, or at least started it.

Sauerkraut. Also little cucumbers, just because I saw a packet for sale in Lidl, and people had been talking about fermenting them in an online group.

It would be nice if the cabbage was home-grown, but even so, this is traditional preservation of seasonal veg, and it feels like the right thing to be doing at this time of year.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Gwyl Canol Hydref Hapus

After the tests, an actual post, slightly delayed due to an unfortunate encounter between my laptop and some beer.

Happy autumn equinox! The Welsh name means mid-autumn festival and it's the middle of the three harvest festivals. In other words, we're slap-bang in the middle of harvest season.

There's not a lot in the garden, thanks to the slugs, but there are plenty of blackberries and mushroom season is under way. It's an excellent year for rowan berries, so I have a couple of gallons of rowan wine on the go.

Rowan wine. Also rosehip syrup.

Earlier in the year I gathered bilberries, dried them and then, because experience has taught me that dried bilberries are liable to in mouldy, soaked them in brandy. This evening I used them as the basis for my Christmas pudding, adding fresh hogweed fruit and rosehips, sloe puree, damson leather and quince jelly from last year, and some magnolia petals that had fallen into my sister-in-law's garden in the spring, which I gathered and pickled. I include some more conventional ingredients, too, like flour and sugar.

I find it very satisfying to bring together these various preserved ingredients and turn them into a treat that will keep for the middle of winter.

Final test

Let's see if I can get a photo saved and then uploaded.

A couple of pics from a recent walk.

And a photo...

Was it the photos that caused the problems before?

George in a tree.

Another test

Sorry for the rubbish. I have new phone and my computer's died. This one I'm going to save first

Test post

The previous test went to the wrong blog. Now can I post one here?

Friday, 16 September 2016

Carding willowherb fluff

Look what I've got!

This was supposed to be a just-opened-the-box photo, but I couldn't resist playing with them first.

These are mini carders, hence the relatively cheap price of £12.95 + £2.75 delivery. I'm not sure exactly what pitch the pins are, but they're described as, fine.

The last time I attempted carding I was about six and visiting a friend's grandmother. I can't remember much about it. Luckily I don't have to as the internet is full of helpful advice. I found a blog post with nice clear pictures and, specifically for cotton, a video that gave me a good feel for the technique.

My first few attempts didn't go terribly well. I didn't know whether this was because I had the wrong tools, or it's not possible to work this fibre or, more likely, because I lacked the skill. I persevered and it got a bit better. After a while I got the hang of spreading the fibre out over the surface of the pins without pushing it too far down between them. With a bit more work I managed the next stages of the process, too. Here's how it went after a few goes:

First, put some fluff on one of the carders, pressing lightly so it stays put.

See the links above for how to do the actual carding. It ended up looking like this:

I then used this fine metal comb...

... and my fingers...

... to roll the fluff up loosely.

I rolled this over the surface of the pins, which made the roll much more compact. I guess this is the same process as needle felting.

I now have six little rollags, or punis, as they seem to be called if they're cotton.

the next step, of course, is to try spinning them. I've never spun rollags before and I can see myself pulling several of these apart before I get them hang of it. Maybe I need to make a few more before I move on to spinning.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Playing with plant fibre

I enjoy spinning and live in an area full of sheep. I could easily get hold of a fleece, so what's stopping me? Well, fleeces don't come off the sheep ready to spin, they need washing and carding first. I don't have the tools for carding, which is a fairly major obstacle, but the washing puts me off almost as much.

Wet wool is heavy and hard work to handle, and there's a big risk of felting while washing. Then I'd have to dry it afterwards, which in this climate is a serious challenge. All in all, I'm not greatly enthused about the prospect of preparing fleece for spinning.

On the other hand, there are fibres around that look a lot more attractive.

Rosebay willowherb has spectacular flowers and spreads its seeds on the wind with little downy parachutes. As the seed pods open in the sun, bundles of fluff are released.

It's this fluff that attracts me. It's so beautiful! By way of experiment, I gathered a few pods full of fluff. It was so soft that I couldn't even feel it on my hands.

It wasn't too difficult to pick the pieces of pod out of the fibre, apart from the gravity-defying property of the little parachutes. I'd be trying to put fluff down in a pile, and little bits of it would detach themselves and float up past my face.

After a while, though, I managed to get a bundle of fluff without bits of seed pod stuck in it, though I didn't manage to remove all the seeds.

Ideally, at this point, I'd card the fluff, which would not only line up all the fibres in the same direction, but hopefully also comb out the remaining seeds. As I said above, I don't have carders, but I found that by pulling the bundle apart with my fingers, the fibres aligned themselves quite nicely.

The big question, of course, is whether it would be possible to spin this fibre? One critical factor is staple length, i.e. the length of individual fibres. I tried to look up the typical staple length of wool, for comparison, but it turns out that this question is rather like, How long is a piece of string? Anyway, it's upwards of two inches (50 mm).

A more sensible comparison, perhaps, is cotton, as that also comes from seed heads. There is considerable variation here, too, but it seems to range from about half an inch to about one and a half inches (13-38 mm). I measured a little clump of fibres, and it was about half an inch long. That's right at the bottom end of the range for cotton, which is considered poor quality, but perhaps it's just about long enough to be feasible.

Having concluded that theoretically, it should be possible (just) to spin this, I decided to try a bit. Not with the wheel, as I'd need a larger quantity for that. I just teased out a bit and twisted it with my fingers to see whether I could persuade it to form a thread.

Yes. Yes, I could get a thread, of sorts. It's not at all strong, but then it is very fine. I don't think I'd be aiming for such a fine thread, so with more fibres running together, hopefully it would be a bit stronger. It would probably be better if I had the right tools, too.

This brings me back to the question of carders, which is a bit of a sticking point as they're expensive. Like, fifty quid expensive. That feels like a lot of money for something that might not work. Furthermore, not all carders are alike. The ones for cotton are much finer (more teeth per inch) than the ones for wool. If my daft idea of spinning willowherb fibre didn't work out, I'd have an expensive set of carders and no use for them. I'm not sure what to do now: Do I risk the money on something that may turn out to be useless?

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.


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