Wednesday, October 31, 2007

I Believe...

I believe there is food that makes you go "Hmmm" and food that makes you go "Wow!"

I believe you should have the "Wow!" food every day.

I believe the difference between "Wow!" food and "Hmm" food has nothing to do with rare ingredients, fancy cooking techniques or spending lots of time.

I believe it has to do with caring about the food, and respecting its integrity.

What on earth do I mean by "caring about the food, and respecting its integrity"?

I mean that home-made scrambled eggs on toast - made with home-made bread, or a really nice loaf from a good local baker, maybe soda bread or a sourdough loaf, and with home-grown eggs or really nice eggs from a small free-range flock - is more likely to make you go "Wow!" than a Marks and Spencer roast duck in burgundy sauce that you reheated out of a packet.

What do you think? Would you prefer the scrambled eggs on toast or the roast duck?

The Pepsi Challenge

My authentic ginger beer (Fred) is ready to drink today, so I did my own version of the Pepsi challenge and poured out a glass of Fred beer and a glass of Ginger beer (the yeast-culture version) and got all the family to taste them and say which they liked best.

They didn't know which was which, but they unanimously chose the authentic Fred beer. It's hard to describe flavours in words, and I'm no Oz Clarke, but it has a fuller, more complex taste. It's certainly peppery with the ginger, but it's also fruity and tangy. The yeast culture ginger beer is peppery and sharp. It's refreshing and tasty, and the kids have been drinking it faster than I can make it. But the new one is even better.

So poor old Ginger, the yeast culture ginger beer plant, has to go. I have a batch ready to be made into beer today, but I won't keep the culture going after that. I'll use it to leaven a loaf of ginger bread or something - after all it's yeasty and gingery. But I'll certainly keep Fred going, and I'll try to build him up to make bigger batches for us.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Review: The River Cottage Family Cookbook

Yesterday I mentioned that my homemade sourdough starter is made with instructions from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Fizz Carr's The River Cottage Family Cookbook. There's only one thing I don't like about this book - the title. It sounds like a kids' cookbook - you might assume it has lots of recipes for pink cakes and pizza with the toppings arranged to look like faces. If you don't have kids, you'd probably never think of buying this book. Big mistake.

If they'd asked my advice, I would have advised Hugh and Fizz to name the book "The Campaigning Real Food Book For People Who Want To Learn What Food Is For And How To Work It". OK, maybe "The Family Cookbook" is snappier but my title is far more accurate.

To show what I mean, these are the chapters of the book:
  • Flour
  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Fruit
  • Vegetables
  • Fish and Shellfish
  • Meat
  • Store Cupboard
  • Sugar and Honey
  • Chocolate

Each chapter starts with a discussion about what the ingredient is, where it comes from, what does it do. The authors want you to understand these ingredients, to grok them, because that's by far the easiest and most direct way to make you a better cook.

There are recipes, too, and they're great recipes. The emphasis is on family-friendly British home-cooked food, often with a twist. It's not trendy restaurant or dinner party food. But don't get the idea it's all been-there-done-that. I loved the sweet redcurrant and chili jam - it's the best accompaniment to cold meats ever. The creamy Brussels sprout gratin lives up to the promise in the text:

Some people think they don't like Brussels sprouts. This recipe should change their minds.

Green peas with roasted red peppers and chorizo was another eye-opener. But it's true that most of the recipes are for workhorse dishes - rice pudding, scones, bread, burgers, fish pie, roast chicken. Maybe you already have your own recipes for these things, or maybe you tend to buy them ready-made from the supermarket. The Family Cookbook would be a great book to give to a student or a young person leaving home for the first time. And it would also be valuable to a non-cooker who wants to learn how to cook the food they like to eat, with delicious no-fail recipes.

But my favourite thing about this book is the projects. These are a bit different from recipes. Some of them take several days. Some of them involve making an ingredient from scratch, rather than making a finished dish. All of them are fun and very educational. The sourdough bread I'm making at the moment is a project from The Family Cookbook. The butter we made a few months ago was another. I keep meaning to get around to the "make your own bacon" project. I know Steph has tried the "make your own sea salt" project, although when she realised she had collected the seawater close to a sewage outfall, she binned the results.

I give this book five stars out of five. I have bought it for other people, and I have talked other people into buying it for themselves. I use it as a reference book as often as I use it as a recipe book. If I was forced to whittle my recipe book collection down to just five books, this would be one of them.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Home-Made Sourdough Starter

Sourdough bread starters have some things in common with ginger beer plants:
  • both are symbiotic cultures of bacteria and yeasts (known in some circles as "beasts")
  • both are "fed" in order to multiply and grow, before being divided when you want to use them
  • After division, part of the culture is used to make the product, either ginger beer or bread, and part is kept and fed again
But they also have some differences:
  • There is only one ginger beer plant, as far as I know, but there are many sourdough cultures and each one is different
  • You can only get an authentic ginger beer plant from someone who already has one, but you can make a sourdough starter from scratch
I tried to make a sourdough starter from scratch on Saturday, using the instructions in Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Fizz Carr's River Cottage Family Cookbook. I've called it Fizz. I thought of calling it Hugh, but since it's supposed to bubble and froth, I thought Fizz was more appropriate. I won't reproduce the recipe here, if you want it you'll have to buy the book, but basically you mix flour, water and orange juice, then feed it every day with more flour and water until the natural beasts in the flour multiply.

So far it's looking a wee bit frothy, but it's not very lively. I need to feed it again today, and tomorrow I can use it to make bread. I'm also waiting for an established starter to arrive in the post, so I can compare it with my home-made version.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Break In

Each Sunday morning the shed on our allotment site opens for an hour to sell onion sets, seed potatoes, and other supplies such as weedkillers, fertilisers etc. and allow access to the lawnmowers and so on. It was my turn to man it this morning. But when I opened, up daylight was shining in through the roof - someone had climbed up and kicked their way through the corrugated plastic, and stolen the cash box containing about £5.

So instead of spending an hour playing shopkeeper and chatting to the other allotmenteers in a cosy dry shed, I had to climb up and help cover the hole with some sheeting and weigh it down with whatever we could find, then phone the police to report the crime.

But it wasn't entirely a wasted morning. I was talking to the chairman and I have agreed to take on the remaining part of our plot. Last year we had about a quarter of plot 19. This year we've had two-thirds of it And now we have the whole plot. Ed has ambitions to grow enormous pumpkins but I was reluctant because I know how much space they take. I've negotiated a deal with him, and he agrees to help dig it over (it's extremely rough at the moment) if I let him plant Atlantic Giant pumpkins on it. Tomorrow, Poland! Ha ha ha ha ha!

Cartoon from Climate Cartoons.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Sourdough Bread

Whilst I was researching ginger beer plants, I learned more about microbiology than I expected. A proper ginger beer plant is a symbiotic organism containing a yeast (saccharomyces pyriformis) and a bacteria species (brevibacterium vermiforme) living together in a mutually cooperative culture. That's pretty neat.

There are other symbiotic microorganisms which humans make use of. For example sourdough bread is made with a "starter" which contains wild yeasts and lactobacteria, instead of shop-bought yeast. Just like the ginger beer plant, you keep your starter and feed it so it grows. When it has doubled in size you can take part of it to leaven some bread. As well as making the bread rise, the starter gives the bread a unique tangy taste.

As far as I know, there is only one authentic ginger beer plant. But there are many sourdough starters, with different qualities. I am trying to get hold of a couple to compare them, but I may try to make my own from scratch later today. Watch this space.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Recipe: Cheesey Bread Pudding

I love traditional bread-and-butter pudding with raisins and nutmeg, all hot and gooey and served with custard. This is a savoury variation that makes a delicious and cheap vegetarian main course.

Cheesey Bread Pudding

Butter 8 slices of bread and make sandwiches with grated mature cheese and sliced onion. Quarter the sandwiches and arrange in a baking dish. Feel free to vary to contents of the sandwiches. If it doesn't have to be a vegetarian dish, some ham would be very nice. Or you might want to put some pickle on the sandwiches, some sliced tomatoes, cooked sausage or whatever you fancy.

Beat 2 eggs with some milk, salt and pepper, and any other flavourings you like. I just rummage through the cupboards and see what I fancy - sometimes it's a generous helping of mixed dried herbs, or I might grab some fresh herbs from the garden. Or I might go for mustard powder, tabasco, or horseradish if I feel like something a bit spicy. It's up to you. It's that sort of recipe. You need plenty of liquid though, so add more milk until you think you have enough mixture to soak the sandwiches thoroughly. I reckon about half a pint or so.

Pour the flavoured eggy mixture over the sandwiches. If you had any cheese leftover, sprinkle it on top. Onion, too if you have any. Now bung it in a moderate oven for 25 minutes or so, until the eggy mixture has set and the cheese on the top is golden.

In a nutshell - it's cheese sandwiches with savoury custard poured over then baked in the oven. Now you know how to do it, go and invent your own family's favourite version.

October 26 2007 - Hunter's moon

Like the harvest moon we had last month, tonight's full moon occurs close to sunset. So as long as we do not have thick cloud cover, people can continue to go about their business by moonlight without any long period of darkness. At this time of year, hunters in particular use the light of this moon to pursue migrating geese. They can also ride out across the cleared fields to catch the fox, which itself is hunting the small mammals who are gleaning food from the fields. And finally they can more eaily see deer in the forest now thatthe leaves have fallen. And that's why October's full moon is known as the Hunter's Moon.

If you look at the moon shortly after it rises, it appears larger and yellower than if you view it when it is higher in the sky. This is true of all full moons (and crescent moons, planets, constellations and anything you look at in the sky). But you are more likely to be looking at a harvest or hunter's moon at moonrise because this occurs at such a convenient time, around sunset. The arc the moon follows at this time of year is shallower than at other times of year so it never climbs really high in the sky. That's why people say these two moons are larger and yellower than other moons.

At any rate, it is a beautiful sight. Try to see it, if you can.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

5 Weeks To Save The Big Green Gathering

It's not looking good at The Big Green Gathering, the sustainable summer festival. If you remember I reported how a sudden change in their costs has left them in crisis, and they need to raise £100,000 by the end of November or there will be no more BGGs.

They raised an encouraging £10,000 in the first week, but then donations slowed to a trickle. Now they need to raise £84,000 in the next 5 weeks, or they will have to go into liquidation.

The great thing is you can help with no risk at all. They will hold any cheques you send them and only cash them if they do raise enough to save the festival. If they don't get enough, they'll tear up your cheque and you've lost nothing. If you want to help, you can either:
  • Become a BGG shareholder. Shares are available at £40, only one share may be held per person. Details of how to do that are on the BGG Crisis website. If you want to become a shareholder, you can choose to have your application held until after the AGM, so that your cheque would only be cashed if enough money was raised to save the festival.
  • Send a cheque made out to BGG Rescue Fund to to BGG, 10 St Johns Sq., Glastonbury BA6 9LJ, or donate online at the donations page. Cheques are better for two reasons: online donations have a hefty processing fee and 30-day delay, and also BGG will hold all cheques and only bank them when they are sure they have raised enough funds to save the festival.
You can also attend one of the exciting events, such as an auction for prized including a wind turbine, a weekend in a tipi, and a subscription to Permaculture magazine. Or you can attend a benefit concert in Bristol.

You can also publicise the crisis on your own blog or website. Please let people know, and do what you can to save the Big Green Gathering.

2007 UK Veg Box Awards

Voting is now open for the 2007 UK Veg Box Awards. So if you love your veg box, and would like to show the people who provide it how much you apreciate them, why not nominate them using the online nomination form.

And if you don't get a veg box - why not? Find your local scheme by clicking on the picture below.

What To Do In November

Image and video hosting by TinyPicSomeone on the Facebook allotment group asked what they can do on their new allotment in November.

In some ways, this is the very best time of year to get an allotment. You can do all the preparation and put in the infrastructure at your leisure. By the time spring comes around everything will be in place for a fantastic season.

If your plot is full of weeds you can dig them out, as long as the ground isn't too wet, or frozen solid. Keep your eyes open as you go, though. There could be some established perennial plants dormant under the ground. If you discover any daffodil bulbs for example, or rhubarb crowns, anything like that, put them carefully back.

When your plot is all bare, decide where your beds are going to be, and what kinds of beds to want. You might want to lay paths between the beds, so do that now. You might want to build walls around your beds, of railway sleepers or bricks etc. Erect your compost heap. Erect a shed if you want one. Site your water butt and make sure it's on a firm level base.

Once you've got the beds laid out, you can double dig them to loosen the soil and prepare it for cultivation. This is the method I use for double digging - some authorities tell you to actually remove the earth to two spade depths, but I prefer to remove only one spade depth and fork the earth at the bottom. That keeps the topsoil on the top and the subsoil on the bottom. Plus it's a lot easier and quicker. But don't dig if the soil is really wet. It damages the soil structure and does more harm than good. Plus it's no fun at all.

You'll feel like you've done something worthwhile once you've done all that. But you don't want to leave bare earth over winter, as it could erode. I'd be inclined to cover it with mulch - whatever you can get your hands on. If you can get enough manure of compost to cover it, that'd be great. Otherwise old carpet or plastic sheeting, well pegged down against the winter gales. If you're quick about the weeding and digging you might still be in time to sow field beans instead, as a green manure. They'll cover the earth and also add nitrogen to the soil, and organic material when you dig them in in early spring.

You can plant soft fruit in winter. Get some raspberry canes, also black and red currants, and decide where you want your soft fruit bed to be. You can still plant garlic, onions and shallots. But mainly you want to relax with a selection of seed catalogues and plan next season.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Fred Beer

I made up the ginger beer from the authentic ginger-beer-plant culture I named "Fred". So now I have a 2 litre bottle of "Fred beer" on the kitchen windowsill, slowly carbonating. We'll be able to drink it in about a week, and compare it with the ginger beer from the home-made yeast culture we named "Ginger".

I gave "son of Fred" to my sister, Steph, who returned from Vienna last night with presents of Austrian chocolates and Himbeerlik├Âr (raspberry liqueur). So now she has her own authentic ginger beer plant culture to make home-made ginger beer, and share the culture with her friends in Sunderland.

The original Fred has been made up again into another brew. I'll feed him a spoonful of ginger and a spoonful of sugar every day for a week, and then we'll make some more ginger beer. I was never a fizzy drink fan, but it's a thrill having home-made soft drinks on tap.

I believe...

...seedlings are miraculous.

It doesn't matter how many times I see it, I am always gobsmacked when the dry, shrivelled seeds I sow begin to grow.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

How To Make A Bean Sprouter

Here's how to make a bean sprouter out of an old jam jar.

1. Start with a clean jam jar. Go for one with a plastic lid if you can, because it's going to be in contact with water a lot so a metal one will rust.

2. Get a piece of wood that fits inside the jam jar lid, and make a hole in the lid with a hammer and nail. You're just trying to make lots of holes in the lid. The wood is there because if you knocked the nail into the unsupported lid, it would just smash.

3. Make lots of holes. If you can be bothered to mark out a symmetrical pattern in advance - you're nuts.

4. Really, make lots and lots of holes. Water will drain through these and it's tiresome if it drains slowly. Make plenty of good-sized holes.

5. That's it. You've made your sprouter. Now to sprout some beans in it. Put about two tablespoons of mixed dried beans or seeds in the sprouter. Beans I like to sprout include:
  • mung beans
  • chickpeas
  • alfalfa seeds
  • mustard seeds
  • fenugreek seeds
  • aduki beans
  • soya beans
  • black-eyed peas
  • sunflower seeds
  • wheat grains
  • green and black lentils (not red)
  • buckwheat

6. Cover the beans with plenty of water (fill the jar to the top with water) and replace the lid. Leave on the kitchen windowsill overnight. The beans will swell a lot.

7. In the morning, drain the water by upending the jar on your draining board. All the water will run out of the holes you made. You'll be grateful you made plenty of holes.

8. Two or three times a day, pour clean water into to jar, swill your beans and drain them.

9. In a few days time the beans will have sprouted. When the little sprout is about the same length as the bean, they're ready to eat. If you don't want to eat them straight away, put them in the fridge which will stop the sprouts sprouting and keep them fresh.

You can buy sprouters of course. They cost up to £20. Actually the £20 one is probably worth it. It's made of terracotta and it's beautiful. What I find pretty shocking is that for £5 plus P&P you can buy a sprouter that's exactly the same as the home made one in the project.

I'm Not Anti-Tesco

I'm not anti-Tesco. I don't like being anti-anything. I much prefer to be pro-something. I even shop at Tesco sometimes. That's OK. I never said they were evil. I don't think it's immoral to shop there.

I just prefer to shop locally instead. I like to support my local retailers. I like to see a healthy and varied high street in my village. I think that, overall, small local retailers have a better record on the environment, on trading fairly with British farmers, on treating their staff fairly, on sourcing goods ethically. I think the traditional British high street is a good thing, and I don't want to lose it.

In any case, Tesco don't do anything much different to the other "big 4" supermarket chains - that's Asda, Morrisons and Sainsburys. I'm not a big fan of any of them, but I occasionally shop in them if I can't shop locally for some reason.

But if it's late at night and I suddenly realise that my son is invited to a birthday party in the morning, and I don't have a gift or a card for him to take, then I dash to the out-of-town supermarket and get these things, as I did last night. I'm grateful that it's there so I can do that. But I kick myself for not organising all this sooner, when I could have done it all locally. I don't see any point in cutting off my nose to spite my face - don't see the point in refusing to use the 24-hour supermarket when it's right there. That would be the ethical thing to do if supermarkets were evil. But they're not. I just prefer to shop locally when possible.

So I'm not anti-Tesco. I'm pro-local.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Energy Saving Week

It's National Energy Saving Week, the Energy Saving Trust's nationwide event to get Britons saving energy. You can commit to saving your 20%, find out how influential you are when it comes to spreading the word about fighting climate change, or get a grant to generate your own energy.

If you want some ideas about saving energy, how about reading up on energy saving kettles, energy saving set-top boxes, energy saving lightbulbs, or watch a video for some top tips. You could even submit a 60-second short film on climate change action to Sky’s ‘Green Shoots’ competition. The winner will have their 60 second short film shown on Sky TV.
I just got up from the computer and switched off six appliances that shouldn't have been left on in the first place. What are you going to do for energy saving week?

Soda Bread Recipe

This is the bread recipe for people who are scared of breadmaking. That's because it's not actually bread at all, it's really more like a great big scone. It's quick and easy and really pretty foolproof.

Soda Bread

Dump about 1lb of wholemeal flour (not strong bread flour, just regular baking flour) in a large mixing bowl, add 2 tsps of bicarbonate of soda, 2 tsps cream of tartar (or you could add 4 tsps of baking powder instead of the bicarb and cream of tartar, and if you don't have any cream of tartar, don't worry about it just go ahead and make the recipe anyway with bicarb only) a good grinding of sea salt and 2-4 tsps of brown sugar if you have it.

Mix it all together with your hands, and then add about half of a half pint of milk, stirred yogurt or buttermilk (who has buttermilk nowadays? If you have it, use it, but otherwise just use milk. Oh, and if you didn't have cream of tartar or baking powder, be sure to use buttermilk or yogurt at this stage. If you just have bicarb on its own and plain milk then your bread won't rise. It will still taste good, but it will be very dense and chewy). Mix the flour and liquid together and add more liquid until you have dough. Feel free to add a bit more liquid than I said if that's what's needed to make dough, and if you overdo the liquid, work in a bit more flour. It's not a fussy recipe. As long as you have a ball of dough you're doing fine.

Shape it into more-or-less a ball and plonk it on a greased baking sheet. Sprinkle a few porridge oats on the top if you like (you can add a couple of handfuls of porridge oats to the flour next time if you feel like a change). Make deep cuts in the top, as if you were thinking of cutting it into quarters but changed your mind. Then bake it in a moderate oven until it is done. It will puff up and come apart at the cuts you made, which makes it easy to tear into chunks with your hands. Soda bread cut into neat slices with a knife makes me laugh. I would look at it after about 30 minutes, and take it out and tap it on the bottom. If the top looks cooked and the tap sounds hollow I would call it done, but if the top looks pasty and the tap sounds dull I'd give it another 5-10 minutes.

Weed of the Week - Creeping Buttercup

This is creeping buttercup. There aren't any flowers in the picture but the flowers look like familiar buttercups.

It's not such a problem in vegetable gardens because it isn't hard to dig out. You've got to dig it up - if you dig it in, it will just regrow. But if it gets in a perennial bed such as a flower bed, or in amongst your asparagus, it can be a nuisance. It spreads by long runners from the parent plant. New plants grow where the runner touches the ground. Each plant grows from one central growing point and I'm told that as long as you remove that, it won't regrow from any roots you leave behind. That's the crucial piece of knowledge that makes creeping buttercup much easier to deal with than other weeds with regenerative roots.

Wear gloves when you're dealing with it, as the sap can cause blisters if it gets on your skin. Apparently medieval beggars used it to raise sores on their feet to get sympathy. It's also poisonous. If it can make the skin of your feet blister, you can imagine that you really don't want it in your mouth, oesophagus, stomach etc. I've heard that it depletes potassium from the soil, and kills neighbouring plants.

Sounds pretty unpleasant doesn't it? But it's not really that tricky to deal with so it's not in the same category as ground elder, for example, or bindweed. As weeds go it's not that evil. But don't forget your gardening gloves.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Tesco and Local Shops

Tesco have bought a site in the village where I live, and I'm not happy about it. One reason is that I think our thriving local shops will be damaged when Tesco moves in.

The local shops and businesses certainly think so. There are "Poynton Against Tesco" posters in most of the local shops and petitions on the counters. And there was a well-attended protest in the village last weekend (I didn't know about it, so I didn't go. I'm on the mailing list now).

Our MP, Sir Nicholas Winterton, agrees. He said:

Another Tesco store will undoubtedly have a huge impact on the local community and, in particular, on the small retail sector. Whilst Tesco’s corporate affairs manager for the North West assures me that Tesco will help bring both jobs and customers back to Poynton, this will surely be at the expense of local independent retailers.

The 2006 all-party parliamentary report "High Street Britain 2015" also agrees. After a detailed examination of the pressures on independent shops, including competition from large supermarket chains, the report concludes that independent newsagents and petrol forecourts are very unlikely to survive and independent convenience stores/grocers are unlikely to survive until 2015.

And the 2005 New Economics Foundation report "Clone Town Britain" stated:

... we are reaching a critical juncture: We can choose to take action that will lead to thriving, diverse, resilient local economies across the UK; or, we can do nothing and condemn ourselves to bland identikit towns dominated by a few bloated retail behemoths.

What do you think? Do large supermarket chains damage local retailers, or is it all hot air?

Today's cartoon from Climate Cartoons.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Roots, Pots, Legs and Bras

We've had a few hard frosts at night and the allotment is transformed. Squash plants deflate like a popped balloon. Runner beans turn black and limp. It's time to tidy up.

Spent plants can be put on the compost heap or dug directly into the ground. Beans in particular do a lot of good because they capture nitrogen from the atmosphere and "fix" it in the ground. You can pay a lot of money in a garden centre for nitrogen-rich fertiliser. Or you can just plant some beans and wait a season.

I'm fuzzy on the science, but I know these curious nodules on the beans' roots are involved (see the photo). The bottom line is - plant beans, dig them into the ground when they're finished, and put brassicas in the same earth next time. Brassicas love the nitrogen.

If you can't remember the order of the 4-crop rotation, try this mnemonic "Roots [point to ground, where roots grow], pots [point to your boots, like plant pots for humans], legs [point to your legs], bras [you can invent your own gesture for this one]". That's the order - roots, pots, legs and bras. Root veg first (like carrots, parsnips etc.), then pots (potatoes), next legs (legumes i.e. beans and peas) and finally bras (brassicas, that's cabbage, sprouts etc). Then you're back to roots again.

Ginger Bread Men

When it comes to keeping kids happy for an afternoon, you can't beat baking. The secret is to let the kids do as much of the process as possible. The other secret is to be very relaxed about the mess, the appearance the finished product, and how long it's all taking. After all the object of the exercise is to have fun for an afternoon, not to produce picture-perfect cookies in a hurry.

We made gingerbread men. The kids did the weighing and measuring, stirring, rolling, cutting and decorating. The only thing they didn't do was putting the baking trays in and out of the oven. They helped me clean up whilst the gingerbread men were baking. And they also did the eating, of course.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Manchester Climate Change Meeting

There's a meeting in Manchester on Thursday 25th October which aims to demystify the science and politics of climate change. Professor Geraint Vaughan of the University of Manchester will be giving a presentation (he was my atmospheric physics lecturer at Aberystwyth back when he was plain old Dr Vaughan), and there will also be talks by Friends of the Earth, Camp for Climate Action, Campaign against Climate Change, Greenpeace, the Green Party and Action for Sustainable Living.

It starts at 7.30pm prompt, it's at the Friends Meeting House (behind the central library). I'll be there so if you're in the area come and say hello.

I Won The Herb Character Competition

One of my favourite blogs, Top Veg, ran a herb character competition for Herb Day, and I entered a rather silly picture of Einstein with green sage leaves for hair (see what I did there - Einstein/Sage?). It won the competition and now I've received my prize - a santolina rosemary.

Thanks Top Veg. It has survived the post just fine. I gave it a drink and primped it a bit and it's looking very perky on my windowsill. I shall overwinter it indoors and plant it out in the spring.

What's Sprouting?

My sister, Steph, dropped off her two kids, TJ and Rebecca, here yesterday and then swanned off to Vienna with her husband for a long weekend. It's not too bad today because my three kids are still at school, but it's going to be crazy on Monday and Tuesday with five kids in the house between ages three and nine.

Ed took our lot to school, and I cleared up the prodigious mess five children had made between getting up and leaving the house at 8:20 whilst TJ and Becca watched a Bagpuss DVD. Then the kids helped me feed Ginger and Fred ("OK Becca, you put the sugar in and then give Fred a stir", made me laugh. If you don't get it, try saying it out loud. And remember I have a slight Liverpool accent).

Then they sowed some cress seeds on kitchen paper, and made some bean sprouts. Becca chose a combination of fenugreek, black eyed peas and mung beans. TJ chose alfalfa, soya beans and green lentils. They spooned their beans into a glass and poured water over them. Then we put them on the windowsill to soak. Tomorrow we'll strain off the water and put them in the sprouter, and by the time their mummy and daddy return they should have a crop of bean sprouts.

Now they're eating yogurt for a mid-morning snack and I'm drinking reheated coffee I didn't have time to finish at breakfast and updating my blog. Expect my posting frequency to go down a little for the next few days. I've got my hands rather full.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Can I Eat Bean Sprouts During Pregnancy?

Someone found this blog by searching google for the phrase "Can I eat bean sprouts during pregnancy". Seems like a funny question, but I suspect it's related to a health scare in Toronto when a number of people were infected with salmonella from eating bean sprouts.

Most people who are infected with salmonella will get over it, although they'll have vomiting and diarrhoea and feel extremely rough. But the very young, the very old, immune compromised people and pregnant women may be more severely affected and can die, so it's not to be taken lightly. Good hygiene that we all know about helps prevent its spread - washing hands, cleaning work surfaces, keeping fresh food refrigerated, cooking meat, eggs and chilled or frozen foods thoroughly etc.

There seems to be no particular reason why bean sprouts would harbour salmonella more than any other food. This isolated case in Canada seems to be a freak, rather than a timely warning that we should all avoid those dangerous killer alfalfa sprouts. The usual advice on salmonella says "Cook foods thoroughly", but that's very confusing. Does it mean we shouldn't eat salad? How about fruit? It's this kind of thing that helps drive people to ready meals and hamburgers because they're scared of eating fresh healthy food like bean sprouts and eggs.

For example, a few years ago seven people in the UK died from legionnaire's disease traced to an arts centre. But of course that doesn't mean arts centres are dangerous. A badly-maintained air conditioning unit was the cause. Similarly, it doesn't seem justified to point the finger at bean sprouts in general just because they were linked to this outbreak in Toronto. Poor food hygeine at some stage must have been the cause. And if that happens again, next time it could strike spinach, or apricots, or watercress, or anything else. When you think about it like this, it seems crazy to avoid bean sprouts.

I'm not a doctor, I'm not a biologist and I'm not the FDA. But I'd say bean sprouts are one of the healthiest things you can eat. If you're pregnant or immune compromised and you'd really rather not risk it, then I respect that. But what are you going to eat instead? Are you going to ask the restaurant to serve your salad without bean sprouts? If the restaurant has poor kitchen hygiene, you could still get sick from the uncooked lettuce and tomatoes. If you are going to opt for a BLT from the sandwich place rather than a salad sandwich with beansprouts, aren't you worried about all the saturated fats, salt, nitrates and so on in the BLT, not to mention that uncooked lettuce and tomato again? I think the salad is the healthier option, even with the bean sprouts. What do you think?

Wild Mushroom Soup Recipe

Wild Mushroom Soup

I didn't collect enough shaggy ink cap mushrooms to make a whole batch of soup, so I stretched them with some shop-bought mushrooms. This recipe works well with bog-standard shop mushrooms, shop-bought exotic mushrooms, or wild mushrooms. But you do need plenty of them. Fry a finely chopped onion and one or two crushed garlic cloves in a little olive oil. Add plenty of chopped mushrooms. They shrink down a lot as they cook, so add more than you think you need. When they mushrooms have darkened and shrunk, cover with milk. Add a bay leaf and simmer for a while. Keep your eye on the pan so the milk doesn't boil over. I left it to simmer very gently whilst I made some soda bread.

When you are almost ready to serve the soup, liquidise about half of it and add the pureed soup back to the chunky soup. I don't like totally smooth mushroom soup, but it's a bit watery just as it is. This step thickens the soup without adding anything gloopy like cornflour. Now taste the soup and add a little sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Add a good slug of cream (or creme fraiche etc.) If you have any Madeira or port knocking about, a slosh of that wouldn't do any harm either. A garnish of finely chopped chives finishes the job. Serve with your soda bread which should be ready about now.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Seed Catalogues

It's that time of year of year again when allotment gardeners sit at home with a hot cup of tea and peruse piles of seed catalogues whilst dreaming happy dreams of all the things they want to grow next season. Seed catalogues are very curious in that they vary widely even though they all do basically the same job. So I thought I'd do a quick rundown of some of the catalogues I have this year, and give them each a "star rating", out of a possible maximum 4 stars.

I have compared the prices for a "standard shopping basket" of a packet each of Ailsa Craig tomato seeds, Enorma runner beans, Partenon courgettes, Little Gem Lettuce, and Early Nantes carrots (I chose the varieties because they are very common and available in almost all catalogues).

The bottom line is - I'm certainly going to be placing an order with the Real Seed Catalogue.


*** Great Choice, Great Prices

Dobies is a well-established name in gardening, selling seeds and plants directly through their catalogues. I might have this wrong, but I don't think you can get Dobies seeds in garden centres and shops. Their catalogue is glossy with lots of photographs and detailed descriptions of each variety. Probably because they're so large their prices are very low.

Fruit and Veg Yes
Flowers and ornamentals Yes
Garden Equipment Yes
Plants and seedlings Yes
Online ordering Yes
Standard shopping basket price £7.75 inc. P&P

The Organic Gardening Catalogue

*** Reasonable Prices For Organic Seeds, Especially Good for Books and Equipment

The Organic Gardening Catalogue is a charity, and is the official catalogue of the Garden Organic (HDRA), Europe's leading organic gardening organisation. The catalogue is not glossy but is illustrated with colour photos and detailed descriptions of varieties. It sells organic seeds (and bulbs, sets etc.) and organic gardening equipment such as beneficial insect shelters, organic pest control and so on. It also sells an interesting range of books.

Fruit and Veg Yes
Flowers and ornamentals
Plants and seedlings No
Online ordering
Garden Equipment Yes
Standard shopping basket price £10.52 inc. P&P, but you get a 10% discount if you join Garden Organic which costs £28 for individual membership.

Mr Fothergills

*** Good Choice, Good Prices

Mr Fothergills is another long established name in gardening. Its glossy catalogue has flowers on one side and if you flip it upside down and back to front the veg is on the other side. Lots of colour photographs and descriptions of varieties. They're not cheap, as you'll see from the price of a standard shopping basket. But if you order 5 non-offer items you can order any packet of seeds valued at up to £1.69 for 10p, and if you order 15 items you can order another packet of seeds valued at up to £2 for just 10p.

Fruit and Veg Yes
Flowers and ornamentals Yes
Garden Equipment Yes
Plants and seedlings Yes
Online ordering Yes
Standard shopping basket price £10.44 inc. P&P (Mr Fothergills don't sell Partenon courgettes so I substituted Tosca)

Thompson & Morgan

** Confusing Catalogue, Confusing Offers, Most Expensive

Thompson & Morgan have been supplying seeds since 1855. Like all the other catalogues described so far it is glossy with full colour photos and full descriptions of varieties. The fruit and veg part of the catalogue is arranged unusually - all the patio vegetables are grouped together on a single page, there is a page for salad (except that patio tomatoes aren't on that page), all the tomatoes are together on a tomato page (except for the patio tomatoes which are on the Patio page, and Gardeners Delight tomatoes which are listen on the Salad page), and almost everything else is listed under Kitchen Garden Favourites. You might like this arrangement but I found it confusing and hard to find specific things I wanted. In fact, I couldn't find Enorma runner bean seeds, Ailsa Craig tomato seeds, or Partenon courgette seeds in the catalogue, which is surprising as those are pretty standard. But I did find them on the website. So a low "ease of use" score for T&M. They're quite pricey too, the most expensive "standard basket" of all the catalogues in this review, although they have a confusing array of offers - the catalogue says "2 free packets of seeds", for example, but when I went through the ordering process online I got one free packet. I don't follow it at all.

Fruit and Veg Yes
Flowers and ornamentals Yes
Garden Equipment Yes
Plants and seedlings Yes
Online ordering Yes
Standard shopping basket price £12.14 inc. P&P

Real Seed Catalogue

**** Rare and Heirloom Seeds at Very Good Prices

This is one of my favourites. The Real Seed Catalogue is printed entirely in black ink on non-glossy paper, even the orange cover which is nonetheless very attractive and based on classic 19th century typographical designs. The whole operation is run by Kate and Ben (who have a new baby Josephine) and represents a private collection of rare and heirloom seeds, all non-hybrids (no F1s here). All the expected types of veg are available (tomatoes, lettuces etc.) in interesting and unusual varieties. And they also sell strange and rare things, such as amaranth and mustard greens for the home gardener. They even encourage customers to save their own seeds instead of buying it each year, and provide instructions on how to do so. I think that's extremely cool. Instead of the standard shopping basket, I have picked a typical example of carrots, lettuce etc for the price comparison here, because they only sell unusual varieties. They're surprisingly cheap. So cheap in fact that my shopping basket didn't reach the minimum order of £8 before P&P. I'll just have to buy something else to make up the difference - hmm, what shall I choose...?

Fruit and Veg Yes
Flowers and ornamentals No
Garden Equipment No
Plants and seedlings No
Online ordering Yes
Standard shopping basket price £8.27 inc. P&P (all varieties were substituted as The Real Seed Catalogue only sells unusual and heirloom varieties)

Chiltern Seeds

*** Interesting Selection and Quirky Catalogue

Chiltern Seeds are another unusual seed company who eschew colour photos in their catalogues, in favour of careful descriptions and quirky cartoon illustrations. Like The Real Seed Catalogue, they specialise in rare and heirloom varieties, but unlike TRSC they also sell F1 hybrids. Their prices are comparable to Mr Fothergills and The Organic Gardening Catalogue, and significantly cheaper than Thompson & Morgan.

Fruit and Veg Yes
Flowers and ornamentals
Garden Equipment
Plants and seedlings No
Online ordering
Standard shopping basket price £10.43 inc. P&P (I substituted Polestar for Enorma runner beans and Nero Di Milano for Partenon courgettes)

D.T.Brown & Co.

**** Cheapest for a Standard Basket of Seeds

D.T.Brown & Co. are approaching their centennial as a seed and bulb supplier. Their non-glossy colour catalogue has far more fruit and veg than flowers (which is what I like to see), and is full of photos and detailed descriptions of varieties. They have a small selection or organic seeds, but most of their seeds are conventionally grown. They are the cheapest catalogue in this review, and if you order 5 packets of seeds you can choose a Centennial Collection for 5p, after 12 items you can pick a free packet worth up to £1.50, and if you order 20 items you get another Centennial Collection for 5p, 25 items and that's another free packet worth up to £2.50. Not to be sniffed at.

Fruit and Veg Yes
Flowers and ornamentals Yes
Garden Equipment Yes
Plants and seedlings Yes
Online ordering Yes
Standard shopping basket price £7.50 inc. P&P (I substituted Defender for Partenon courgettes)

Video - Spoof Tesco Ad

I loved this video by Friends of the Earth. It's voiced by Alexei Sayle and it's spoofing Tesco's ads, but with a rather different message.

Planting Garlic

I planted five rows of garlic yesterday, thanks to the garlic fairy. The picture shows two rows of garlic laid out at the correct spacing, and waiting to be planted. (By the way, the correct terminology is that you sow seeds and you plant plants, but sometimes the two terms are used interchangeably).

Spacing is very important in vegetable and fruit gardening. If you plant (or sow) things too close together, plants crash into each other as they grow. Their leaves compete for light, their roots compete for water and nutrients, and instead of getting twice as many plants per row, you get less than half-size plants and your yield is poorer. On the other hand, if you space things too widely, not only will you get a lower yield per row than if you squeezed a few more plants in, but you leave lots of bare earth exposed between the plants, which will surely be exploited by weeds. Even if you can keep the weeds off the exposed areas, exposed bare soil gets eroded which you certainly don't want.

Remember, the soil is the key. If you attend to the soil and neglect the plants, you'll do OK. But if you attend the plants and neglect the soil, you'll have a disaster.

Garlic, apparently, should be grown in rows 12" apart (you can see how I've marked my rows with stakes and twine). Then you plant the garlic directly under the twine, 6" apart. Or if you want to be really space efficient you can plant the large outer cloves from each bulb 6" apart and plant the smaller inner cloves 4" apart. To be honest, I don't go along with a ruler measuring them, but I've a good idea what 6" or 4" looks like and I guesstimate. I also had three cloves of something called elephant garlic. The cloves were flipping huge, so I guess the bulbs must be downright enormous. The leaflet that came with them said to plant those 12" apart, so I did.

I'll weed these by hand for a while. I don't want a thick covering of weeds crowding out my lovely garlic. But if I use a hoe I might damage the garlic just underneath the soil. That's where the stakes and twine come in handy again - I can see where the plants should be, anything growing anywhere else is probably a weed (although plants do sometimes wander about a bit. I suppose rain and critters transport the seeds short distances). I'll leave the stakes and twine in place until the garlic starts coming up and I can see where the rows are, then I'll use them somewhere else in the garden. Another approach is to sow fast-growing seed, such as radishes, along the same line as the new plants. A green line of radishes quickly springs up showing you where to hoe and where to avoid. Within a few weeks you can take your crop of radishes and by then your emerging seedlings should be clearly visible.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Weed of the Week - Ground Elder

There are actually quite a few weeds in this photo - the eagle-eyed will be able to spot bindweed, creeping buttercup, couch grass and dock. But the most prominent weed here is ground elder.

Ground elder is a flipping nuisance due to two bad habits. The first is its habit of making a tangled mass of thick but brittle roots just below the soil surface. It is quite easy to remove huge quantities of these (unless it is growing amongst established plants, in which case it is an absolute bugger), but very difficult to remove every last piece. You will always leave bits of ground elder root behind. This leads us to its second bad habit - it can quickly and easily regenerate from even a tiny piece of root. In combination, these two habits make ground elder very hard to eradicate.

It seems to defy mulches, horticultural plastic, old carpet etc. It just pushes straight through, or find its way around the edges. I've never tried weedkiller on it but it has a reputation for shrugging herbicides off. The stuff does have the most astonishing will to live. I sometimes wish my crops showed such strength of character.

Ground elder was deliberately introduced to Britain as a food. I would dearly like to go back in time, find the person who did this (a Roman apparently), and beat him up. Apparently the young leaves can be boiled as spinach. I can't say I've ever tried it. In my opinion almost any leaves can be boiled as spinach, but whether it's worth the bother is another question. I must admit that there's a slight appeal in the thought of eating it as revenge. Ground elder has also been used as a remedy for gout, and in some places it is known as goutweed. It was introduced to Northern Europe in the middle ages by monks, who suffered from gout terribly. I'm not sure why mediaeval monks were particularly susceptible to gout, which is commonly associated with overindulgence in alcohol and rich foods, but there you are.

It doesn't spread as fast as some other weeds, such as bindweed, and so I am satisfied to dig it out of new beds and hoe it ruthlessly off established beds when I see it. I am especially ruthless near my carrots. It's a member of the same family and so can host carrot root fly. Of course, the flies don't do any harm to the flaming ground elder, but they make delicate lace doilies out of my carrots. This method is the same as advocated by Bob Flowerdew, who says you should go out every day and pull off every leaf of ground elder you see. Sooner or later you will exhaust the rootstock. Good luck.

My verdict of ground elder - it's a pest but there are worse things. Maybe I will try eating it. And whilst it flourishes on my allotment, at least I have nothing to fear from gout.

Visited by the Garlic Fairy

I've been visited by the garlic fairy - a box labelled "Garlic Lover's Growing Pack" arrived today containing 10 bulbs of 7 varieties of garlic for planting. It also contains instructions for planting and growing, and a recipe leaflet. It comes from The Garlic Farm, but I didn't order it. I suspect my dad. Own up now. Are you the garlic fairy? Thanks anyway, whoever it was.

I'm going to have to be more organised than usual and clearly label each variety as I plant them. I usually know what sort of veg I've planted where (although not always), but I don't always note which variety. All these types of garlic are supposed to have different characteristics, and I'd like to compare them to decide which grew best, which tastes best, and which I'd like to plant again in future.


I picked some more shaggy ink cap mushrooms from the field at the end of the road. I also found three other types of mushroom, but I could only identify one.

The one I'm pretty sure of is a Little Japanese Umbrella (shown top left). It's supposed to be edible but they're so titchy it's hardly worth the bother. They're also really pretty (my blurry photo doesn't do it justice) so I'm happy just to admire them where they are.

I also saw lots of these little white mushrooms (centre right). They were perhaps a couple of inches across, pure white caps and gills, the gills running down the stem like a chanterelle. Again, my photo is poor - the gills are quite widely spaced and they fork. Some of the caps had a smooth round edge but some had a "toothed" appearance where the cap had begun to decay leaving the gills sticking out. Since I didn't know what they were I left them alone.

The last type of mushroom I saw (bottom left) might have been almost any type of large brown mushroom. They were so degraded it was hard to tell. They were the largest mushrooms I saw, about four inches across. There were a fair few of these, and they must have been pretty substantial before they started to rot away. So if they are edible they'd be very worthwhile to collect.

It's not very satisfactory standing in a field trying to flick through a large book comparing pictures without any clue how to narrow down the options. A few times I thought I had a candidate only to learn that the type of mushroom pictured only occurs in birch forests in the spring, not in fields in the autumn. Or a picture that looked very similar in the book turned out to be a super-magnified close-up of a mushroom that is millimetres across, not a few inches like the mushroom I am looking at.

So if any more knowledgeable readers can suggest what these mushrooms might be, if I spot them again I'll try to compare them to that suggestion. I know you can't identify mushrooms by a picture only, so I won't do anything stupid like eat them just on the basis of some stranger on the internet saying "They look like chicken-of-the-woods to me". But it would give me a point to start. At the moment I am floundering.

Monday, October 15, 2007

I've Got A Real Ginger Beer Plant

I think I mentioned that the ginger beer plant I made wasn't a real ginger beer plant after all. The real deal is a complex symbiotic organism made up of a yeast and a bacillus (and a bunch of other microorganisms) all living together in a culture. You can't make one, any more than you can make a radish from scratch. You have to get a radish seed from someone who grew radishes themselves. And you have to get a ginger beer plant from someone who already has one.

Well mine arrived in the post this morning, sent by a lovely man in Ulster who I contacted via the internet. When it arrived in a ziploc bag inside a jiffy bag, it looked like pale yellow beads of jelly. It smelled fresh and slightly gingery. I made it up according to his instructions, by mixing it with water, sugar and ginger in a loosely-capped coffee jar. Since my yeast culture ginger beer plant is called Ginger, I have named this one Fred.

I will let you know how Fred progresses. I can't wait to make him into ginger beer, and I'm keen to compare ginger beer made this way, with the yeast culture I already have.

Blog Action Day

When TV shows and movies want to refer to the environment and climate change, they use big global images - icebergs calving, pandas in china, rainforests, satellite shots of hurricanes, floods in Bangladesh, drought in Africa, and so on. It's easy, then, to feel that the environment is somewhere else. And that saving the planet is such a big task it's going to take big power and big money to do it. It's easy to feel helpless and overwhelmed.

But that's exactly the wrong response, because it's exactly the wrong way to think about the environment. Look outside your window. What you see is the environment. If it's a street filled with cars, it's the environment. If it's a rain-filled sky, it's the environment. Look back inside, at the room you are in. That's the environment. The environment isn't hills with wind farms on them. It's where you live.

What did you see? Was it a pleasant environment or an unpleasant one? If unpleasant, how could it be made nicer? If some trees were planted in the street and if 80% of the cars vanished, replaced by a smaller number of buses, trams, maybe some bicycles, would that be a better environment? Does your room contain healthy plants, attractive pictures, are the objects in the room made of mostly natural materials or mostly man-made, is there plenty of natural light or is it gloomy, or lit by electric lights? What can you do to make your own immediate environment better?

I'd like people to open their eyes and look at the environment they live in. I'd like them to open their minds and realise the effect their own choices have on that environment, for good and for bad. And I'd like them to use their imagination and find ways to make the environment better for themselves and everyone else. I'd like them to stop sleepwalking through their lives, blind to the possibilities and the power they have. Wake up! Look around you. Do one thing today to make your environment better.

Today is Blog Action Day, an international initiative of bloggers, with the aim of uniting thousands of blogging voices, talking about one issue for one day - the environment. This was my contribution.

Tesco in Poynton

Tesco is proposing to build a new supermarket right here in Poynton. We're lucky to be well served by a good range of local shops and businesses already. For example I get a lot of my fruit and veg from Norman, the greengrocer and fishmonger who also sells frozen game. There are a couple of other greengrocers in the village as well. And there is a wonderful butcher on Chester Road who does marvellous free range chickens, gorgeous bacon and delicious Lincolnshire sausages. Again, he's not the only butcher in the village. There is a large Co-Op convenience store, there's a small Somerfield, a Netto, a terrific health food store, several bakers, a charming little bookstore, a thriving post office, several newsagents, chemists, a great antique shop, and a really excellent hardware shop that stocks everything imaginable, even though it seems far to small to have what you need. There is nothing important you can get in Tesco that you can't already get in Poynton. But if a large chain supermarket comes to Poynton, all of those local shops may go.

As well as the threat to our local businesses, a new large supermarket will bring more traffic through Poynton. Sadly, Poynton is already traffic hell as anyone who has visited me will agree. The village is nothing but a giant crossroads, with branching side-streets that don't join up. All traffic in the village is funneled through the junction at the village centre. And the frequent roadworks we seem to have snarl everything up unimaginably. The last thing we need is to attract more vehicles here.

There are already 12 branches of Tescos within 7 miles of Poynton. It worries me that one in every eight pounds British people spend, they spend in Tesco. I am alarmed that Tesco are expanding their range of services to include selling houses, selling insurance, internet services, pharmacy services etc. What is next? Funerals, weddings, a range of cars from a Tesco Value family hatchback model to a Tesco Finest sportscar? Will we live in Tesco houses full of Tesco furniture, and get on a Tesco bus to go to work at Tesco and earn money that we can use to pay off our Tesco loan that we got to spend in Tesco. I exaggerate of course. But the flip side of this flippancy is that I value the diversity and real choice provided by small local businesses, and I fear the uniformity a Tesco monopoly is bringing.

It's not just Tesco. I object to all the big 4 supermarkets for a variety of inethical, unfair and environmentally-damaging business practices. I can see that this issue right here on my doorstep will preoccupy my thoughts, so I am sure I will blog more about just what's wrong with big supermarkets over the coming months. But for anyone impatient to find out more, there is lots of information on the following websites: Many local shops here in Poynton have signs in the windows and petitions against the proposal. There has been a demonstration in the village against Tesco, although I didn't know about it so I didn't go. I've asked to be added to the mailing list so I can keep up to date about future events.