Sunday, December 31, 2006

Happy New Year

I'll be celebrating New Year's Eve by singing Italian opera music at the Bridgewater Hall with my choir, St George's Singers. The last piece we're singing is the finale from Leonard Bernstein's opera, Candide. The words are:

We're neither pure, nor wise, nor good.
We'll do the best we know.
We'll build our house and chop our wood,
And make our garden grow.

A fitting way to round off 2006. See you in 2007.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Duck Soup

Don't tell me you threw away the carcass of your duck/goose/turkey or whatever? What about the hambone? Oh no, you didn't did you? Well keep this recipe in a safe place for next year, so you can enjoy the best home-made soup you've ever tasted. It makes a big batch, but it freezes beautifully so if you can't eat it all straight away freeze some in individual portions. Then bring it out when you want to impress visitors, or better still bring it out when you have a stinking cold or just the January/February blues. It will cheer you up no end.

Duck Soup

Take your biggest pan (it needs to be a whopper) and set it on the stove. Attack your bird carcass with a meat cleaver and hack it into bits that will fit in the pan. It can be just two or three big sections if your pan is big enough. Include anything that is stuck to the carcass, any leftover bits of meat or skin, the gravy and jelly it exuded onto the plate, the orange you stuffed inside it (you mean you don't stuff an orange inside your duck before roasting it? Oh you really must try it, or a lemon if you're roasting chicken). Cover it with water and turn on the heat. Now add to the pan a few vegetables to add to the stock - Just rummage about in the cupboards and see what you can find. A carrot, an onion, a leek, a couple of bits of celery, whatever you've got, but nothing starchy like potatoes or parsnips. Chop them into bits big enough to fit in the pan - we're not finely chopping veg for soup here, just hacking stuff up to make stock so don't waste time making 1/4" dice or anything. Don't even worry about peeling them or taking off the tops, just heave it all in. Add also a few whole herbs and spices such as bay leaves, a few peppercorns, springs of parsley or rosemary or whatever you've got knocking around. Again, don't chop them, just drop them in. Then leave it all bubbling away for a couple of hours.

Strain it into a bowl and save the liquor. Don't strain it into the sink, that's the whole point of the exercise. Throw out the bones and veggies and all the yukky looking stuff. The beautiful, divine-smelling, clear-coloured stock is what you've gone to all this trouble for. Believe me, Mr Oxo sells nothing like this.

Measure how much stock you have. For every pint of stock put a big dollop of duck fat into a pan (you mean you didn't save your duck fat? You fool! What did you do with it then? No, don't tell me, I can't bear to hear. Well use butter instead and next year save the fat) and then gently fry a pound of chopped mixed vegetables (one pound for every pint of stock, that is). The exact mixture isn't important, but the flavour is nicer if there is a fair bit of variety - if it's all potatoes it's rather dull. I'd want something oniony - onions, shallots, leeks, anything like that, and also perhaps some carrots, celery, swede, potatoes, nothing green like broccoli or cabbage though just because it turns the soup a nasty brown colour. Once you've sweated the veg for a while, pour the stock back on top, put a lid on and leave it to simmer for another hour or two. Then whizz it up with a stick blender (or put it laboriously through a liquidiser in batches, or rub it even more laboriously through a sieve and remember to ask Santa for a stick blender next year). Slosh in a generous slug of Madeira (which you already have in the cupboard as it's an essential ingredient in gravy) or failing that port or wine (red or white) or whatever alcohol you've got short of a Bacardi Breezer, and slosh of cream and stir it all in. Have a taste and see if you feel like adding any salt or pepper, but since it's based on fantastic stock you may well need neither. A spot of chopped parsley as you serve it tells people this soup has nothing to do with Mr Heinz. If you haven't any parsley, don't worry - as soon as they taste it, they'll know.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Plans for 2007

It's fashionable to say "I don't do New Year resolutions", but I like them. I'm a great believer in turning over a new leaf, in re-inventing yourself, and in taking stock and taking action. In fact, I like resolutions so much I make them all the time, not just at New Year. That's what my monthly challenge polls are about - setting goals and targets and then holding myself to them.

So what changes will we be making in 2007? For one thing, we plan to do more with the allotment. We were only given a quarter of a plot, and half of that was very weedy, the other half having been under plastic sheeting for a season. So we cultivated the clean part, and laid the sheeting down over the weedy areas until spring. It was a smart way to begin, because the area was manageable. In fact we tried to cram rather too much in and some crops suffered from overcrowding. So now we can cultivate the whole of the plot we were given, but we have also been given another section of plot. Maybe this time we're overstretching ourselves, but we'll see.

Another goal for 2007 is to try our hand at beekeeping. I've looked up local courses, and the nearest one is fully booked up. I'm on a waiting list for 2008. But I'm looking further afield, and considering going on a weekend course somewhere. If all else fails perhaps I'll just dive straight in without any lessons. I'm good at learning stuff from books, willing to try things and see if they work, and sensible enough to join a local club for some expert advice if I come unstuck.

The main project for 2007 is to pay off our mortgage. We have calculated that if we were free of our mortgage and largely self-sufficient in food, Ed could afford to give up his full-time job. So we have spent the past couple of days making calculations about how much we can afford to tighten our belts and how quickly that will pay off the loans. Funnily enough this is the part that really makes me feel like we might actually one day buy some land. I'm confident that I can learn the knowledge and skills needed to make it work (perhaps foolhardily so), but what worries me is the ever rising cost of land and property. The financial aspect of buying a smallholding is the daunting bit, and it feels good to make steps towards that.

I'd also like to visit a smallholding or organic farm for some real hands-on experience and a taster of what it would be like to live like that permanently. To that end I have been investigating WWOOFs (voluntary working for brief periods on organic farms). You arrange with a farmer to come and do voluntary work for a weekend. I expect to work hard, but I also expect to learn a lot, not least whether this is really the life for me or should I just stick with my allotment and backyard chickens.

What are your plans for 2007?

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Review of 2006

Earlier this year I realised that although I have spent most of my life studying and working in academia, when I daydream I don't dream about publishing papers, giving lectures or attending conferences. I dream about living on a farm, waking early to milk the cows and collect the eggs. I dream about owning a plot of land and raising some livestock and growing some crops. This has always been my daydream for years now, but I hardly talked about it or even consciously thought of it as something achievable.
Watching the TV series "It's Not Easy Being Green" stirred in me such feeling of envy and longing that I spoke to my husband, Ed about it. I told him this was what I really wanted to do, and I'd like to try to make it a reality.

I was on tenterhooks to see his response. If he had laughed at me and called me crazy, I would have perhaps planted a few vegetables in our garden and tried to satisfy myself with that. He didn't laugh at me. He didn't say much either, although that's Ed all over. But the next day he called me over to the computer and said "Look at this". He had been searching on the Internet for smallholdings for sale and had found some properties he liked the look of.

Since then we have tried to gain the knowledge and skills we need to make our dream a reality. We have got a small allotment and grown some crops there. We have built a chicken run in the garden and populated it with two hens. We started this blog which has been much more successful than we ever dreamed, and was recently featured in The Times. More importantly, the blog also helped us make contact with a lot of really helpful and friendly people who dream the same dream as us. Some of them have gone substantially further along the road to self-sufficiency that we have.

In 2006 I also taught students in prisons for the first time, which was very rewarding and educational for me. I developed my relationship with my dad as we spent a lot of time together emptying his house in Liverpool and selling it, which allowed him to settle permanently in Ireland. The kitchen and master bedroom got remodelled following the subsidence we suffered in 2005. Sam, our youngest, started full-time school, and his teacher shared with us her concerns that he has Asperger's Syndrome just like our eldest son (the same teacher was the first to spot the obvious that time, too). So we have begun the protracted diagnosis procedure again.

But it has been our change of direction that has dominated the year. We will look back on 2006 as the year we stared making our dream a reality. The first step was admitting what we dreamed about. What do you dream about?

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Happy Christmas, Readers

The Bean-Sprouts family would like to wish all our readers a very happy Christmas. We hope you enjoy your Christmas dinner (whether it is locally sourced or not) and that you recycle your wrapping paper and turn off the fairy lights when you go to bed. We hope you've been good all year. But most of all we hope you go to bed on Christmas night feeling "That was the best Christmas I've had in years - I wish they could all be like that". And we wish that they will.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Carol Singing

Last night some of my choir, St George's Singers, went carol singing at the hunting lodge of Adlington Hall, a Medieval and Tudor stately home about five miles away from our house. We do this every year, singing for guests in the dining hall. We sing "The Twelve Days Of Christmas", "We Wish You A Merry Christmas" and other well-known carols, and the diners sing along. The choir gets a fee from the hall, and we take a collection for charity at the end. The hall also provides drinks and mince pies for us after we've sung.

It's become a traditional part of Christmas, and I'd feel sorry if I ever had to miss it.

What does this have to do with self-sufficiency? Part of my philosophy on life is to relish the simple things that give me pleasure. Something like singing beautiful music with friends in a gorgeous setting, and then eating mince pies and talking and laughing afterwards, can give me a feeling of fulfilment and well-being that can last for days. I love Christmas, and these are the things I love about it, the things I've been posting about for a week now. Not spending lots of money. Not receiving expensive gifts. Not haring round the shops or sitting in traffic and becoming very stressed. But spending time with friends and family, making things, sharing food, music and appreciating the many blessings I have been given. That is part of self-sufficiency, not only in food, energy or water, but self-sufficiency in happiness and satisfaction.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Vegetarian Christmas Dinner

Wow, the number of people arriving at this site by googling for "vegetarian Christmas dinner" is amazing. Most of them end up on the page where I put the recipe for stuffed roast butternut squash, which would make a great Christmas dinner. But that's not what we're having this year.

Vegetarian Cheesey Roast
Rip up half a loaf of wholemeal bread into a food processor and whizz it to breadcrumbs. Place this in a bowl with half a pound of really tasty cheddar cheese, such as from the Snowdonia Cheese Company, grated (I use the grater attachment on the food processor), cut an onion into quarters and whizz that into pieces in the food processor and put in the bowl with the other ingredients. Add half a cup of thick cream, a handful of chopped mixed fresh herbs, a very generous pinch of mustard powder, a normal-sized pinch of cayenne pepper, and plenty of salt and freshly milled black pepper. Mix it all together and it will come into a doughy lump.

This in fact is more-or-less Delia Smith's recipe for Glamorgan sausages, which she uses as the basis of vegetarian sausage rolls and very nice they are too. they're also nice fried up as vegetarian sausages, and the same mixture can be used in all kinds of other ways to make tasty vegetarian meals. We'll be using it to stuff a suet roll.

For the suet pastry, mix 8oz wholemeal self raising flour, a small handful of chopped fresh herbs, a pinch of salt and 4oz vegetarian suet in a mixing bowl and add a little cold water until it comes together into a pliable dough. Turn it onto a floured board and knead lightly, then rest it for a few minutes before rolling out out into an oblong.

Now put the cheesey mixture over the top of the pastry rectangle in an even-ish layer, then roll it up from the narrow end. Moisten the join with water to make it stick and place the roll on a tray with the join underneath and bake at 200C, 400F, Gas 6 for about 30-35 minutes.

Serve it with roast potatoes (roast them in vegetable oil, not dripping or lard, for vegetarians), mashed parsnips, sprouts, Yorkshire puddings (again make sure your roasting oil is veggie-friendly), bread sauce (don't leave this out - if you follow my recipe it's the best bit of the whole meal, I promise), and vegetarian stuffing. The vegetarian in your family will thank you.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Review: 21st Century Smallholder

I won a copy of Paul Waddington's 21st Century Smallholder in a competition. I'm glad I did because it is a great book. One of the things I like best about it is that it isn't printed on glossy paper with loads of huge full-colour photos and very little useful text, like so many other books these days. Instead it provides a fairly detailed overview of a range of topics, from growing fruit and vegetables, to conserving water, to keeping livestock.

Subtitled "How To Go Back To The Land Without Leaving Home", the emphasis is on finding things that anyone can do with an average suburban semi or even urban apartment, such as growing herbs and salad leaves in a windowbox, or worm composting. Waddington is realistic about pointing out the disadvantages of these choices as well as the advantages, and avoids the guilt-trip so many "green" books place on the reader.

I didn't like the section on different fruit and vegetable crops, however. He rates the different varieties according to space, time, gourmet, season, hassle and beauty (each represented by a little icon), on a scale of dark yellow (excellent) to dark purple (not so good). I couldn't intuitively grasp that a pale yellow leaf meant "pretty good season", or even understand what "pretty good season" actually meant. And I have no idea why he rates kale (a rough-tasting cabbage substitute), for example, as "excellent gourmet" but aubergines (one of my favourite veg) as "not so good gourmet". It didn't make any sense to me.

But overall it was an interesting overview of a wide range of topics, with a detailed bibliography to enable you to find more in-depth information. Rather like John Seymour's The Complete Book of Self Sufficiency, it is wonderful for inspiration, perhaps less useful as a practical ", how to", and a valuable addition to my bookshelf.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

A Very, Very, Very, Very Fine House

Not the ramshackle barn in the picture. That's not our house but it's part of the view from our bedroom window. It is rather charming to look at, and I suspect a barn owl lives in it. I never draw my bedroom curtains because of the view.

I love our house. We moved just over four years ago and I still think every day how lucky we are to live here. It's a small house with a small garden and it's relatively new with none of the period features our old Edwardian townhouse in Liverpool used to have. But it is surrounded by farmland. I can look out of my kitchen window and see a tractor, or cows, or (as today) sheep. It's like being on holiday all the time. There is also a lot of wildlife in the garden and the field nearby, including an amazing range of birds as well as frogs, toads, newts, fieldmice and voles, foxes, rats and grey squirrels. I feel like I'm living in The Wind In The Willows.

One version of our dream is that we buy some of the land we can see from the house, and use it to raise vegetables, fruit and livestock. What's stopping us? We've never done anything like that before, and don't know how to go about it. I understand that farmland doesn't sell in estate agents, for the most part. It sells by private agreement. But how do you actually approach a farmer to negotiate buying some land? What would be a reasonable amount to offer? What about access? How does the conversation go?

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Colder Weather

It's been extremely mild here in north Cheshire so far this winter. The pelargoniums are flowering outside, and our gloves and scarves are lying neglected in the bottom of the wardrobe. But this morning I woke to thick fog outside, and frost on my car windscreen. The forecast says it will stay like this, with sub-zero temperatures at night, for the next few days.

It's not only us who have been experiencing this unusually mild weather. Many of Europe's snow resorts have no snow at all so far, and Muscovites have been grumbling about the lack of snow in Red Square.
I wonder what effect this winter will have on the animals and plants round here. Probably it will benefit some and cause others to struggle. For us humans too there are pros and cons. In the "Plus" column it saves us money in heating bills, and inconvenience in being able to get the car started quickly each morning. In the "minus" column, the kids do love playing in the snow each year, as you can see from the photo taken last February, and it will be shame if we see no snow at all this season.

Monday, December 18, 2006

We Are What We Do

You may have noticed that I'm an idealistic sort of person. I have all kinds of beliefs and values and ideals. I think it is important to base one's choices and actions on a consistent set of principles.

But ideals by themselves are no use at all. What makes a difference in the world is action. It doesn't have to be a big action, lots of small actions can make a big difference. That's why I like We Are What We Do. It's a website that's packed with suggestions for small actions you can do that really make a difference, such as leave work on time and spend that time with your family, practice good manners, or donate your old specs to charity. You can keep track of the actions you have chosen, and chat about them on the message boards.
This website really chimes with my own philosophy on life. Think, take action, make life a little bit better, believe that you can change the world.
What am I doing? Well lately I've been spending time with my extended family, I've been getting in touch with friends I haven't seen for a while, I've been playing guitar at church advent services and watching nativity plays at school. I've been getting ready for Christmas.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Real or Artificial Christmas Tree?

We get a real Christmas tree each year which we decorate with tasteful colour-themed decorations, and we also have an elderly artificial tree which the children decorate with all the hand-made decorations that come home from school. But which is more environmentally friendly?

Bob Flowerdew, the famous organic gardener, has announced that he is getting an artificial tree this year which he claims is more environmentally friendly. This flies in the face of popular opinion that real trees are the greener choice. Triple Pundit, the blog which does the maths about various environmental dilemmas, has compared real v. artificial Christmas trees, and concluded that Bob has got it wrong on this one.

But I'm glad that he raised the issue anyway. Some trees are flown great distances for the lucrative seasonal trade, so I recommend asking the seller where your tree was grown. You want to make sure it is as local as possible. Also avoid the shady characters who chainsaw natural woodland by night for a quick Christmas buck. You want a purpose-grown tree which will be replaced by the grower. And do make sure you recycle your tree when Twelfth Night has passed.

Consider other options as well, such as buying a living Christmas tree which will adorn your patio year round and be brought indoors each Christmas. Or you could plant a tree as a Christmas gift for someone, or for yourself to offset the carbon cost of celebrating Christmas.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Christmas Decorating

The Martha Stewart of Tyne and Wear has been at it again. Today my sister, Steph, has helped me:
  • Take up my new jeans
  • Make Christmas decorations out of candles and greenery from the garden
  • Ice the Christmas cake
  • Make cheesey sausage rolls
  • Make a cheesey suet roly-poly for Ed's vegetarian Christmas lunch
  • Buy a tree and decorate it
  • Make soup for lunch
  • Decorate the house
  • Put up fairy lights around the hen house
  • Make mince pies
  • Make mulled wine
  • Tidy up the house, and prepare a buffet for this evening (our other sister, Lindsey is coming with her husband for carols around the piano)

All this with five children between the ages of two and eight running round the house in an excited state. I'm exhausted, but I'm really looking forward to this evening. I'm thoroughly in the Christmas mood now.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Deck the Halls

My sister Steph has come to stay for a few days again, to help us decorate and generally get into the Christmas spirit. She went out to the garden in the pouring rain and came back with armfuls of tree branches which she cleverly transformed into a Christmas wreath.

She used a couple of old wire coat hangers as an armature, some string to hold everything together and two of Eleanor's hair ribbons as embellishments.

Whilst I'm typing this, she's making a picture frame out of a scrap piece of MDF, some leftover woodstain from the shed and one of last year's Christmas cards. It's just like Blue Peter in my own kitchen.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Farm Shop

Our local farm shop is Norbury Farm. Aboult a mile or so away, it's a proper working farm, which also sells fruit and veg, meat, flowers and has a new tea shop. I don't know much about flowers, but the other things are excellent, with top-quality local produce and high levels of expertise. The staff are all very knowledgeable and happy to answer your questions. I wouldn't dream of buying bacon anywhere else now, or sausages. And although I get most of my weekly fruit and veg from an organic box scheme, I sometimes take surplus produce from my allotment to the greengrocer here to barter for things I can't grow.

I went there today to place my Christmas order. We're having a duck. I've found a duck is just the right size for the few meat-eaters in the family. A turkey is too big and I'm not a huge fan of turkey anyway. I'd love to do a goose one day, but they're so big it would mean inviting a dozen people over for Christmas dinner to make it worth it.

The tea shop is a new addition, and I popped in today and had a cup of coffee and a slice of cake. The cake was home-made on the premises and was delicious. The staff were super friendly, and the decor was tasteful country-farm, cosy and appealing.

Farm shops can be a good place to buy local good quality produce. If you have a good one don't keep it a secret - tell your friends, neighbours, family and colleagues. Use it regularly, or next time you look it may not be there anymore. But as with farmer's markets you have to take care. Some of them just buy rubbish non-local food from the cash and carry, or even from supermarkets, and then charge you extra. Be prepared to ask questions, and think about the quality of the food you're buying. Is this good quality meat and veg? Can you tell the difference? Or are you just paying extra for the privilege of parking in a farmyard?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Vandals Again

There's always vandalism on allotments. I suppose there always will be. I went there today and found my Brussels sprouts had been decapitated, and a red cabbage has been hacked apart with a spade. It could have have been worse, I suppose, but it's still annoying. I was saving those sprouts for Christmas dinner but I've had to pick them to use immediately.

We've been talking over on the selfsufficientish forums about "What is self-sufficiency". Here's my contribution to the discussion:

I saw a quote that said "You can't be self-sufficient in wellington boots". To be wholly self-sufficient and rely on no outside inputs whatever, you'd probably be living a stone-age existence. Which is one way to go if you really want to, but why would you want to?

Humankind is inherently social. We rely on other people. We form communities which help each other. That's a *good thing*. So complete self-sufficiency in that sense doesn't seem like a desirable goal to me.

But it is good to be self-sufficient in some things. Self-sufficientISH is a great way of describing it. I have a personal goal to be self sufficient in fruit and veg. It will take a few years but it's do-able. If we ever get more land I'd like to be self-sufficient in meat and dairy. That's a bigger goal. I'd love to be self-sufficient in energy and water. That would mean solar water heating, photovoltaic cells, a suitable site for a good-sized turbine, and a borehole I expect. It's definitely a long-term goal but it's in my mind.

Until then I try to get my fruit and veg and meat and dairy from local (organic, where possible) producers. We try to reduce our use of electricity and water, because that would be part of being self-sufficient in those things anyway, and we get our electricity from a "green" supplier.

It's not about the destination, it's more about the journey. It's about being aware of the impact of your lifestyle on the planet, and trying to make that impact as benign as possible. At the moment even the whole planet isn't self-sufficient, i.e. we can't sustain this way of living without bringing in resources from elsewhere, but there is no elsewhere. If I aim for self sufficiency, it's at the planet-wide level.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Hello, Times Readers

I've been linked to by The Times. Welcome to all the visitors who have reached this site from the article. Don't forget to bookmark the homepage so you can come back, or subscribe to the feed by clicking on the "Subscribe to bean-sprouts by Email" link on the right. And please do vote in the poll (on the right), leave comments (click the "8 comments" links at the bottom of the articles) and generally get involved. This is supposed to be an interactive blog, not just me pontificating about compost or whatever.

If I'd known I'd be linked to by a national newspaper I would have cleaned my kitchen bin before I took a photo of it. And I wouldn't have followed that up with a stupid picture of myself in a silly hat. Oh well.
Coming up in the next few weeks will be a review of our progress towards self-sufficiency in 2006, some earth-friendly New Year's resolutions for 2007, an interview with a good friend of bean-sprouts who has done what we dream of doing, i.e. buying some land and living as self-sufficiently as possible, and more details of our quest for the good life.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Woolly Hat

Blog memes. I don't start them, I just pass them along. Stonehead is usually to be seen wearing a fetching woolly hat (should that be "beanie"?) . Recently Hedgewizard has also taken to wearing one. So I thought I'd join in and post a pic of myself in my favourite woolly hat.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Compost Crazy

A lot of people are scared of composting. They think it's complicated, hard and smelly. In fact it's none of those things. At its simplest, you just pile up organic matter somewhere and leave it alone. That works. I swear. That's all you have to do to get compost. Of course you can make it more complicated than that if you want to. You can get very scientific about the proportions of "brown" and "green" materials, about the difference between "hot" and "cold" composting, "aerobic" and "anaerobic decomposition". You can buy a compost bin or a tumbler or a wormery if you want. Or you can forget all that stuff for now and keep it simple.

But whatever you do, I promise you will find it satisfying. It's a magical process whereby a heap of grass clippings, raked leaves, vegetable peelings and teabags turns into that stuff you pay £5 a bag for at the garden centre. In fact, the stuff at the garden centre is quite likely to contain peat, a precious and non-renewable resource. Even if not, it will have been driven around the country on a petrol-guzzling lorry. You've heard of food miles. Consider your compost miles as well. Home produced compost is splendid stuff for all these reasons.

But why would you want to? What are you going to use your compost for when you've made it? Well you can dig it into your garden soil to improve its quality. If your soil is either clayey or sandy compost will improve its texture making the clay soil less heavy and the sandy soil less light. Compost also adds precious nutrients to your soil which will make make your plants healthier without needing artificial fertiliser.

Compost also makes a good mulch. Just spread it about on top of the soil and it will prevent water from evaporating too quickly and it is said deter some pests, although that doesn't tally with my experience. In time the worms will take the compost down into the soil so you get the same benefits as digging it in without the hard work.

You can also use it to make your own potting compost, by mixing equal parts of sharp sand, garden soil and compost.

Saturday, December 09, 2006


I made my Christmas mincemeat. The recipe started out as one of Delia's, but nowadays it's more "fling a bunch of dried fruit, spices, nuts, sugar and suet in a bowl until you've got about 6lb. Add a slug of brandy. Add more brandy. Top up the brandy for good measure, then bung it in some jars". We like fresh cranberries in our mincemeat, and chopped pecans, prunes and apricots. And we use vegetarian suet so everybody can eat it.

The mincemeat mostly gets made into mince pies, but it's useful stuff to have around. You can also use it in tarts, to fill filo pastry parcels, I've also been known to stir it into hot porridge and it's excellent in baked apples.

The idea for the labels comes from the excellent Mrs Nesbitt, who seems to have fallen off my links list, so I'll replace her. There. That's better.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Smashing Eggs

The hens haven't been laying for a while. They stop when the days become short. I've been meaning to put a light in the henhouse but I haven't got round to it yet.

Yesterday there was an egg, though, which came as a surprise. I think it came as a surprise to the hen, too. It wasn't in the nesting box as usual but on the pile of poo underneath the place where they like to roost at night. I think it must have just popped out whilst she was half asleep.

At least that one had a soft landing. Today there was another egg that wasn't so lucky. It also seems to have been laid by a perching chicken, and so suffered a fairly long drop onto a hard floor.

What on earth are the silly creatures up to?

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Dad Has Gone Home

For the last two months I have been helping my dad empty his huge house in Liverpool to sell it and move to Ireland. Last night he got on the ferry for Dublin.

Right. Now that's all done. I don't have to drive 100 miles every day and spend all my time packing boxes and driving to the dump. I can do the things I want to do. Such as get ready for Christmas I suppose. When's Christmas? 18 days away. AAAAAAARRRRRRGGGHHHHHHH!

McDonalds Forced to Close

Here's a heartwarming news story about a McDonald's restaurant in Tavistock, Devon, which was forced to close because people preferred to eat the excellent local food available. I'm lovin' it!

In other news, I won a copy of Paul Waddington's 21st Century Smallholder (subtitled "how to go back to the land without leaving home") in a competition on Selfsufficientish. The book arrived today - thanks! I've had a quick flick through and it looks great, full of useful and interesting stuff. I'm looking forward to reading it cover to cover.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Review: The River Cottage Year

There are enough recipe books already aren't there? There really are. There's no excuse to write another one.

"The River Cottage Year" by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall isn't a recipe book. It's a treatise on the value of cooking seasonally. It's a hymn in praise of British food. It's a rallying cry to inject some fun and adventure into your shopping, cooking and eating habits.

Having taken the message of this book to heart, I never want to buy asparagus in November again. I don't want raspberries in January. Although I still buy the occasional exotic fruit (it's just not Christmas without satsumas is it?) I'm quite happy with English apples and pears until the rhubarb pops up again in spring. I enjoy hunting out the best local seasonal produce, and I'm so excited by the new foods coming into season that I hardly notice the ones that have just dropped out for another year.

This book can change your life? Yes, I suppose it can. And it's got some great recipes too.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Christmas Pudding

I made my Christmas pudding today, according to our family recipe. That is to say, it's Delia Smith's recipe tweaked to our family's preferences.

There are several traditions associated with the pudding. One is that it is made on "Stir Up Sunday", the Sunday five weeks before Christmas, at which the following prayer is read:
Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may by thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Another tradition is that everyone in the household (especially children) stirs the pudding mixture and makes a wish. It is also traditional to include a silver sixpence in the mixture, and whoever gets the sixpence in their portion on Christmas day gets to be "king" for the day, and all their requests must be fulfilled.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Patchwork Trousers

The best thing about patchwork trousers (apart from how damn hot I look in them) is that when they get ripped, you can fix them, and nobody can tell.

Edited at 1pm:

...but it's really annoying when a few hours later they get caught on something and you rip them again. Grrr!

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Farmer's Market

As part of the bean-sprouts festive challenge to find local ingredients for your Christmas dinner, why not visit a farmer's market? They're much more fun that trudging round the supermarket, and you can often find surprising things to buy, such as ostrich sausages. There is an excellent website where you can look up your nearest farmer's market.

Here are a few tips for getting the most out of your visit to the farmer's market:

  • Go early and have a good browse round before you buy anything.
  • Ask for a taste before you buy, but only if you're seriously considering buying.
  • Not all markets are equally good. Some are no better than the grengrocer in the high street, with veg from the cash and carry rather than from the farm. Ask questions about the produce.
  • When you find a good one, visit it regularly and tell all your friends. They need our support or we'll lose them.
Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Thermostat Challenge Poll Results

The results of the November Thermostat Challenge Poll were as follows:

  • I've gone green! I have turned my thermostat down - 23%
  • I was already green! My thermostat is as low as I can stand - 62%
  • I don't accept your argument! I like wearing shorts at home in November - 0%
  • I'm greener than thou! I am self sufficient in heating fuel - 15%
And this was a clear-cut challenge. You can save significant fuel (and money) by not over-heating your home.

December's challenge is a fun one. I'm challenging you to find local ingredients for your Christmas dinner. You have 25 days to do it, so get hunting for the best local (maybe organic) sprouts, spuds, turkeys, or whatever else you're going to serve on Christmas day.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Uses for Shredded Paper

My dad gave us an automatic paper shredder, so now we can be self-sufficient in chicken bedding. When I told my friends, one said:
Aaaarrrgh! Why didn't I thinkof that? We shred stuff regularly, but I've always just thrown the resulting shreds away. and then paid for hay for the chickens bedding. Thank you.
We've used quite a bit of shredded paper as packing material for dad's belongings. You can also add shredded paper to the compost heap, or make it into briquettes for burning. Any other uses for shredded paper?

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Review: Stitch 'N Bitch The Knitter's Handbook

My mum showed me how to knit when I was a child but I wasn't very good at it. As an adult I picked it up again from time to time but never really "got into" knitting until I found Stitch 'N Bitch by Debbie Stoller.

Knitting's not just for old ladies! Who knew?
The book is written in a "young" and irreverent style. It is stuffed full of knitting patterns for things you actually want to make. But where it really wins in my opinion is the clear instructions for every knitting activity you could wish. Knit and purl stitches, casting on and off (lots of different ways) sewing up, plus the odds and ends like increasing, decreasing, making a buttonhole or a picot edging and so on. This book contains everything you need to know.
Also check out Stitch 'N Bitch Nation by the same author. More fun and funky patterns, and it also teaches you to understand knitting, so you will feel confident enough to modify knitting patterns and even design your own patterns. Her new book about crochet, The Happy Hooker, looks good too.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

To Do List

For over a month now I have been helping my dad empty his huge house in Liverpool so he can sell it and go back to Ireland. It's been a physically and emotionally difficult task, but we're getting very near the end now. We've had a lot of laughs and fun, too, and it's been nice getting to spend some time with my dad just talking and putting the world to rights and doing things side-by-side.

I need to spend time doing some of my own things though. I want to make my Christmas pudding, cake and mincemeat. I want to put lights in the henhouse, they have stopped laying altogether. I want to dig my allotment. And I want to never see the bloody M62 ever again.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Smash a Sprout

Here's a super little flash game. You control a man sat at his Christmas dinner and you have to smash the evil sprouts that come marching across the table. If you miss them they jump in his mouth, if he eats 3 he turns green and expires. The animation is Terry Gilliam-esque, especially the way his eyes bug out when he is stomping on the sprouts.
The serious point is that the ingredients for a traditional British Christmas lunch often travel up to 80,000 food miles which is especially crazy because they are all in season locally (which is the whole reason it's our traditional Christmas meal). Or you could just smash the sprouts because you don't like them. Either way it's a satisfying game.

Why not hunt out some top-quality local produce for your Christmas lunch this year? You could start by signing up to an organic box scheme.

Via Eco Street.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Allotment AGM

Last Friday was the allotment association annual general meeting. To my great surprise I was asked to be on the committee. This involves helping out in the allotment shed/shop once a month, so I am told. In my experience of joining committees it will involve much more than that but they never tell you until they've got you hooked.

Our committee are a smashing bunch of people - friendly, helpful, experienced and hard-working. I have often heard the stories of how they saved our site from a Tesco land-grab by their heroic efforts. But they sometimes come across as a little bit set in their ways. Requests for changes are often met with "We've always done it this way" or some similar refusal. But just to prove this impression wrong they appointed six new committee members on Friday, four of whom are young women so they're obviously not as averse to the possibility of change as they appear.

I'm looking forwards to being more involved in the running of the allotments. Whilst it's tempting to produce a whole shopping list of changes I'd like to see, I think it would be much wiser to put the list in my back pocket, roll up my sleeves and get stuck in with helping out and learning the ropes first of all.

Saturday, November 25, 2006


Today is Buy Nothing Day. Run by the excellent Adbusters (whose online shop is closed for the day):

It's a day where you challenge yourself, your family and friends to switch off from shopping and tune into life for a day - anyone can take part provided they spend a day without spending!

The challenge easy - try simple living for a day. Spend time with family and friends, rather than spend money on them. It may sound boring and cliche, but love is one thing money can't buy.

Buy Nothing Day also exposes the environmental and ethical consequences of consumerism. The developed countries - only 20% of the world population are
consuming over 80% of the earth's natural resources, causing a disproportionate level of environmental damage and unfair distribution of wealth.

As consumers we need to question the products we buy and challenge the companies who produce them. What are the true risks to the environment and developing countries? It's our responsibility to look for simple solutions and Buy Nothing Day is a good place to start.

Buy Nothing Day isn't about changing your lifestyle for just one day - we hope it will be a lasting relationship - maybe a life changing experience? We want people to make a commitment to consuming less, recycling more and challenging corporations to clean up and be fair. Modern consumerism might offer great choice, but this shouldn't be at the cost of the environment or developing countries.

For Buy Nothing Day 2006 we're setting up affluenza clinics - credit card cut-up tables - creating a shopping free zones - dressing up as consumer piggies and meditating Zentas!

On November 25th people in around the UK will make a pact with themselves to take a break from shopping as a personal experiment or public statement and the best thing is - IT'S FREE!!! There is only one rule - anyone can take part, provided they don't shop on Saturday November 25th!

I'll be participating. Ed and I will take the kids to see my dad in Liverpool, and spend some precious family time together before he returns to Ireland.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Barnyard Movie

You don't want to go and see a science fiction movie with me. Or a technological thriller. I'm the kind of person who ruins movies like that by complaining that the science is wrong. You couldn't really destroy an alien civilisation with a virus written on an Apple Mac, the whole northern hemisphere couldn't freeze up by the day after tomorrow, an overdose of gamma rays wouldn't turn a mild-mannered scientist into the hulk, it would simply kill him.

But now I've discovered a whole other class of movies I can't bear to watch - those which feature gardening and agriculture. I can believe the impossible (talking animals don't bother me, for example) but not the improbable or the downright ignorant and so I shall not be joining the family to watch Barnyard:

"Barnyard" is a lighthearted tale centering around Otis, a carefree party cow, who enjoys singing, dancing and playing tricks on humans.

If Otis is a "he", he's a bull not a cow and he certainly doesn't have udders. I'm not trying to ruin your movie Mr Oedekerk, just draw him as a bull or bullock and leave out the udders.

Anyway, Gary Larson's take on the same idea was funnier.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Bigger Allotment

I'm so excited!

I had a phone call today from the head honcho of our allotments. I have been given the rest of the plot. That more than doubles the size of our allotment. I can't wait for Ed to get home (so I can ask him to help me dig it all).
Looking forwards to spending the evening sketching planting plans and dreaming about all the lovely fruit and veg I can grow next season in our big allotment.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Review: John Seymour's The New Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency

This is my uber-self-sufficiency book, the one I would save if my house were on fire. I could tell you it's because of the all-encompassing advice, from preparing an allotment to keeping livestock, making bread, tanning or spinning flax. I could tell you it's because of the picture he paints of life on a smallholding as hard but immensely rewarding. I could tell you it's because of his curiously opinionated writing style (he has harsh words for those who put salt on their porridge, for example). But in truth the thing I love best about this book is the illustrations. Not a photo in sight, the book is illustrated in colour with pen-and-ink drawings and glorious woodcuts I could just look at forever.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Top 10 Uses For Eggs

  1. Hard boiled (Sam's favourite)

  2. Real custard

  3. Eggy bread (Tom's favourite - dip bread in seasoned beaten egg and fry in butter)

  4. Scrambled egg on crumpets (with optional Marmite)

  5. Jammy eggy bread (Eleanor's favourite - dip jam sandwiches in beaten egg and cinnamon, fry, sprinkle with sugar and serve with whipped cream)

  6. Egg soap

  7. Fried egg sandwich (Ed's favourite)

  8. Soft boiled with toast soldiers

  9. Home-made mayonnaise (Mel's favourite)

  10. Pancakes (everyone's favourite!)

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Hen Research

Chris and Linda Evans, of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, have been studying chickens. It seems they're smarter than we thought:

When male chickens come across food, they make a “took, took, took” call to tell the flock – but hens react only if they don’t already know that food is around.

My chickens come running every time I open the back door, and make demanding clucks in the hope I'm going to feed them. But the animal behaviourists from Sydney think they're doing rather more than that:

“If you’re on a long drive and you pass a restaurant sign, that could be a salient piece of information. But if, after food has been brought to the table, someone says: ‘There’s food,’ that’s a redundant comment. It’s that kind of contrast,” Chris Evans explains.

In other words, this is not a Pavlov-type automatic response to a stimulus. Rather, there is a cognitive element which makes it more like human communication (I think it's going a bit far to liken it to language, as the New Scientist article does).

via Down The Lane forums.