Friday, February 29, 2008

E-Day a Waste of Energy

E-Day MeterYesterday was National Energy Saving Day. Did you know? I didn't. If I had known I would have told you about it. It was supposed to be a day of energy saving, asking people to switch off electrical devices they did not need over a period of 24 hours, with the National Grid monitoring consumption. In the event, they found that our national energy consumption for the day was pretty much exactly what you'd expect for the time of year. So why was it such an abject failure?

I believe the clue is in the first three sentences of this blog post. I didn't know about it, and I bet most of you didn't either. If a paid-up environmental blogger could fail to notice that a national energy saving day was happening, then someone somewhere stuffed up the publicity very badly indeed.

According a BBC news story about it:
The E-Day concept started life as Planet Relief, an awareness-raising BBC TV programme with a significant comedy element.
But in September the BBC decided to pull the project, saying viewers preferred factual or documentary programmes about climate change.

Now that sounds like a good idea to me: a sort of Comic Relief for the planet. Instead we've had a damp squib. Apparently there is going to be another one next year. I hope it's better publicised than this one, or it will be a huge waste of energy.

Update on Saoirse's Pigrimage

SaoirseI've been following Saoirse's Freeconomy Pilgrimage with interest, because I like the Freeconomy idea of sharing your skills, your time and other resources in the interests of building community rather than for money. Saoirse planned to walk from Bristol to Porbandar in India, working for food, lodging, and transport but refusing all money. It's very easy to predict problems, to criticise and to say it will never work. But I thought it was an interesting idea and I was curious to know what would happen along the way.

Well, the pilgrimage has had a radical change of direction pretty early on. You can read about it in his blog, but in upshot two other people joined the pilgrimage but they were unable to get a ferry ticket out of England. They also realised in an encounter in a refugee settlement that people from countries such as Ethiopia, Afghanistan and Iraq understood the idea much more readily than most British people, so maybe it is more important to spread the idea in Britain than take it to India. They decided to spend a year walking and working around Britain, and hopefully learn some languages, before resuming the pilgrimage to Porbandar.

All of the criticisms that occur to you occur to me also. Maybe they're a bunch of stupid naive hippies. Maybe. Whether they are or not, they can surely learn something from this journey. It's often been my experience that when you try to teach someone something, you learn something too, and when you try to help someone, you benefit also. And because Saoirse and co. are blogging about it so honestly we can learn too, and we don't even have to get hungry or cold or have blisters on our feet. I wish them luck. I hope their faith in humanity is justified. I'll be extremely happy for them if they reach Porbandar. But I'm confident that whatever happens it will be interesting and valuable. So I'll keep reading their blog and see what happens.

The End of February

dirty beeswaxI usually hate February. It's cold, it's dark, it's wet and windy. It seems like ages since I felt the sun on my shoulders (especially this time - it's been two years since last summer). And this February is worse than normal because it has an extra day in it.

But actually this February hasn't been too bad. The weather has been mostly dry and bright and even warm at times. I've been extremely busy too, so I haven't had time to dwell on how horrible February is, or fret about the gardening I'd rather be doing. It's been a busy time at work, it's been a busy month of singing, and just lately I've had a lot of bee-related work.

Yesterday I dismantled lots of wax frames and removed the rotten wax. Then I melted down the wax over a double boiler. My guru, Arnie, assured me that all the crud would float to the top and could be skimmed off. However there was more crud than wax, and the wax I managed to get was jet black. Hmmm - I don't think this is right. I'll show it to him next time I see him and ask what I should do with it. I was going to make some of it into furniture polish, and I bought some pure turpentine to do just that. But if you rubbed this into wood, surely it would darken and dirty it? Maybe it's fit for gothic-looking candles. Or maybe Arnie knows a clever way to purify it.

So February has almost gone and I hardly noticed it. But now I definitely notice that the days are longer and the nights are shorter. My garden is full of flowers. My bees are flying and active. My chickens are laying more. I want to sow some seeds and chit some spuds. We're hurtling towards the equinox and I feel good. How about you?

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

My Bees Survived the Winter

mouse damage to honeycombsI went to check on my bees today to see if they survived the winter. I would have been very happy if one of my two colonies had survived, as I could quickly build back up to two colonies if I had at least one. But I was braced to lose them both, and have to buy bees this year. My guru, Arnie, lost six out of his ten colonies this winter, and if he can lose so many I didn't rate my own newbie chances.

To my great joy, both colonies survived! One is very strong, with loads of healthy active bees and lots of honey stores. The other colony is much weaker; few in numbers but active and with honey stores - but it has suffered terrible mouse damage. I haven't seen anything like it. Some mice made a nest in the brood box and chomped their way through honey, wax, and woodwork. The buggers! The bees must have been too drowsy and perhaps too low in numbers to attack the mice. The mice have cleared off now the weather is warmer and the bees are more active, but they've made a terrible mess. I didn't take my camera to the apiary so I can't show you the damaged hive. But I brought some stored wax combs home to clean them up. The mice have had a good munch on those too, and that's what you can see in the photo.

I'm going to take off the honey that's there and extract it, so I'll have my own honey soon! I'll melt down the damaged wax, fix up the damaged frames and give my bees new frames with new wax foundation to work on. So I'll have my own wax soon, too. Then I'll feed my bees to build them up good and strong so they'll have plenty of workers ready to collect the spring nectar when the flow is strongest. If there is any sign of varroa I'll treat them with Apistan, a thymol-based anti-varroa treatment. That's why I've got to take the honey off, because the Apistan would contaminate it.

I'm very grateful for the expert help of my guru Arnie. He also helped me compile a shopping list so I can get everything I need to get my colonies back on track. And I'm grateful for Sam's help. He was feeling quite perky by the afternoon (he was off school with a cough and a temperature) and wanted to come and see the bees, so he suited up and came with us. He wasn't at all bothered when the bees flew around him and landed on him, even on his veil right in front of his eyes. He had a good close look and was very interested in the mouse damage. Maybe he'll be a beekeeper when he grows up.

Flipping mice! Eating all my honey! Grrrr!!

Frugal Hot Chocolate

hot chocolateYou know when you get to the bottom of a jar of chocolate spread, and there's not enough left for a sandwich? Don't you dread cleaning it out so you can put it in the recycling? Usually I fill the jar with hot soapy water, replace the lid and give it a good shake. But today I filled the jar with hot milk instead, gave it a really good shake, and poured the resulting hot chocolate into a cup for Sam who is off school today with a high temperature and a bad cough. Frugal hot chocolate and a pretty clean jar that just needs a quick rinse in the sink. Nice one.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Domestic Energy Breakdown

domestic energy use pie chartI was very interested in this pie chart which I saw in a BBC editorial about domestic energy use. It says that 84% of UK household energy use goes on space heating and hot water.

Lighting, by comparison, accounts for only 3% of UK household energy use. So whilst switching to low energy lightbulbs is an easy way you can reduce your energy use and your carbon foorprint, it's not going to make a big difference overall. Instead you should focus your energy on savings in space heating and water heating.

What can you do to cut space heating and water heating costs?

  • Add to your loft insulation
  • Make sure you have cavity wall insulation
  • Install double or even triple glazing
  • Exclude draughts
  • Close curtains when it gets dark.
  • Make sure the curtains have thermal lining
  • Put foil behind radiators
  • Turn off radiators in unused rooms
  • Use timers to make sure the heating is only on when it needs to be
  • Wear a jumper
  • Turn down your heating thermostat
  • Lag hot water pipes
  • Have showers instead of baths
  • Share baths
  • Have shorter showers
  • Install a low-flow shower head
  • Don't use hot water when cold will do
  • Turn down your water thermostat (if you always have to add cold water to your bath or washing-up water, then your water thermostat is too high)
  • If possible, install a solar hot water system

I can see where I can make improvements in my own household. You can bet that one or more of these will be showing up in March's Bean Sprouts Challenge.

Monday, February 25, 2008

New Chickens Settling In

scraggy-looking chickenBEFORE

AFTERbetter-looing chicken
The black chicken I was worried about is looking much better. Her feathers are starting to regrow. So that means it was either:
a) mites, and the mite treatment worked, or
b) stress, but now she's not so stressed any more, or
c) an oddly-timed moult, and now she's done moulting, or
d) pecking, but whoever was pecking her has stopped, or
e) something else.

So not very satisfactory from a deductive-reasoning point of view, but a satisfactory outcome for the chicken.

Their behaviour is returning to normal. There is definitely a pecking order, with the old girls ruling the roost and the new girls as underdogs. But they are mixing more, and aren't huddling at opposite ends of the run anymore.

Egg production is up, too. We're now getting two eggs a day, which is the same as before we introduced the new girls (but they're eating twice as much food and needing twice as much attention, mucking out, topping up water and so on). So that's not entirely satisfactory either. I'm still looking forward to collecting four eggs in a day. I will tell you if that ever happens.

How to Back Up Your Blogger Blog

Donna asked:
Hi mel, sorry this is a totally off-topic question, it's just that you seem much more technically minded than me! Do you / can you save your blog, other than just publishing here? It's just that i'm thinking i'd like to keep a copy? I guess I could wordprocess each entry and save to disk, but that seems like extra work? don't know if i can post an entry then save it??

It's not off-topic at all, Donna. It's relevant to this month's Start A Blog challenge. Backing up your blog (in other words saving a copy) is a very good idea. Backups are always a good idea - you all back up all the files on your computers regularly, don't you? Of course you do. Imagine how terrible it would be to lose all your data, all you photos and music and email contacts and all the other other important things you store on your computer. I shudder to think about it.

How to back up your blog varies from blog host to blog host. I can't be an expert in everything, so if you have a Wordpress or Livejournal or any other kid of blog, you'll have to Google for "back up a wordpress/livejournal/whatever blog" and find out how to do it yourself. But I know how to back up a Blogger blog, because that's what type Bean Sprouts is.

Back Up All Your Past Blogger Posts in One Go

Here's one way. Go to:

But put in your own blog's name instead of "blogname" and the number of entries in your blog instead of N. For example to date Bean Sprouts has 782 posts (including this one) so you see all Bean Sprouts posts in one place if you go to:

(Warning - it takes a while to download. Don't even think about it if you're a dialup user). Hit File - Save As in your browser window and you can save the whole lot either as a .html (web page), a .txt (text file) or a .mht (web archive file).

To save the photos you can use DownThemAll as long as you are a Firefox user. It's a nifty tool that lets you download all the files with a certain extension from the current page. So when you're viewing the web page with all your blog posts on it, you can download all the .jpgs in one stroke and save them on your hard drive.

(From Google Operating System Blog).

Keep your Backups Up To Date

But what about the article you post tomorrow, and the one after that. Do you have to go through this process once a week to keep your archive up to date? You could. Or you could get Blogger to send every post to your email address, and then save all the emails.

Log on to your Blogger account and go the the dashboard of your blog. Click on Settings. Click on Email and then enter your email address in the Blogsend window. You might be able to set up your email software to automatically save all your blogsend emails to the same file. It depends what email software you're using. I really can't be an expert in everything.

Save Your Template

That method backed up all your text and photos. It would still be a real pain if Blogger somehow lost all your data, or if you accidentally deleted it yourself. It would take a long time to restore everything from the files you had, and you would have to reset your template and settings. So back those up too.

Log onto your blogger account and go the the dashboard of your blog. Click on Layout. Then click on Edit HTML. Don't be scared. You can't break anything if you don't change anything. At the top of the page it says:
Before editing your template, you may want to save a copy of it. Download Full Template.
Click Download Full Template. A window will appear asking if you want to download or save the file. Click Save. Tell it where you want to save it to, and hit Save.

Wouldn't It Be Nice If

Wouldn't it be nice if Blogger gave us a simple way to back up all our posts so we could easily restore our blogs if we accidentally deleted them, or if Blogger somehow lost them? That'd be really nice, but as far as I know it doesn't exist. Are you listening Blogger?

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Children, Children's Children: 'Stop Worrying About Us'

WASHINGTON—In a statement channeled back across generations to the present day, the nation's children and the nation's children's children called for an end to decades of passionate oratory over their well-being.

The future youth addressed all those who reference them regularly, including presidential candidates, Iraq War protesters, celebrities recording public service announcements, and anyone about to inaugurate a new community center.

"Put those silly fears aside," the not- yet-conceived children and their offspring wrote, stressing that, while they appreciated concerns over whether they would have access to clean water or ever see a majestic bald eagle, they'd prefer for those currently living to focus on their own lives in the here and now.

"We'll be fine," Samantha Jacobson, a representative from an uncertain tomorrow, read from the letter at a press conference Tuesday. "It's nice how you're always wondering if your actions will deprive us of a glorious heritage of peace and liberty to look back upon, smiling proudly, but, please, let us worry about that. You've sacrificed more than enough for the future—our future—already."

"Really," Jacobson added. "If the ecosystem gets destroyed or the world is plunged into perpetual war, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it."

Signed by 150 influential members of the two forthcoming coming generations, the statement included requests to discontinue all debate over the potential future of such intangible resources as health, earth's natural beauty, and the ability to sit together at the table of brotherhood. The children's children furthermore asked their soon-to-be ancestors to desist all plans to plant trees or write letters to Congress on their behalf.

"There's been a lot of talk about what kind of world you'll be sentencing us to live in, but, come what may, we children of tomorrow are pretty sure we'll make do," the letter read. "How much damage can you realistically do in one lifetime anyway? In 20 or 30 years any major problems will have blown right over. At the very least, take comfort in telling yourselves that technology will develop a new and ingenious method for counteracting whatever negative impact you do have on our ability to breathe the air, watch the stars, or otherwise live in a world free from fear. Right?"

"Besides," it continued, "we'd never be able to enjoy our precious future lives knowing you had wasted every waking hour recycling beer bottles on our behalf."

The note ended by insisting that, whatever happens, the children's children will harbor no hard feelings toward those living today who simply choose to live their lives without fretting about environmental holocaust.

"You work hard, you pay your taxes—go ahead and use as much Styrofoam as you need," the statement concluded. "Who's to say we won't need big piles of Styrofoam in the future? We might. So go ahead and get that Range Rover, because it shouldn't be the privilege of future generations to limit your right to spacious leg room and all-wheel drive."

The letter has caused a stir among commencement speakers, mayors with plans to christen pediatric-hospital wings, and countless others who have spoken tirelessly for the benefit of their children's children from behind podiums. Some staunch supporters, such as Fitchburg, MA resident Nicholas Charters, claimed the letter only bolsters the case for protecting our nation's future.

"We must protect our right to defend our children's children," said Charters, who is contemplating a run for a city council opening. "If not for ourselves, then for our parents, and our parents' parents, who established a great tradition of worrying about the future that stretches back nearly 300 years."

Nevertheless, a majority of those interviewed were relieved to hear their hypothetical offspring are finally taking some initiative.

"It's a load off my mind," said Martin Paller, the 32-year-old inventor of disposable, single-use bath towels. "It will be nice to take some time and focus on myself for a change."

From The Onion

Cartoon from Climate Cartoons. Click on the panel to read the whole strip.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Recycle A Book

Friends of the Earth tote bagFriends of the Earth has started selling 2nd hand environmental books in its new Bargain Basement. Starting at just £1.99, there's all sorts, from wildlife and recycling, to organics and kids' books.

You can give your used books a new lease of life by donating them for Friends of the Earth to sell in the Bargain Basement using the Freepost address:

Friends of the Earth Shop
56-58 Alma St

It sounds great - cheap books about environmental topics, a way to declutter your shelves, the chance to spread environmental ideas to new people, and support the work of Friends of the Earth, all in one place. Brilliant.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Top Ten Uses for Apples

(The total lunar eclipse was a washout, with a thick layer of cloud across most of Britain. The alarm clock went off at 2:45 am, but when I looked out of the bedroom window all I could see was a bright orange glow caused by the street lights of Manchester bouncing off the unbroken low cloud, so I rolled over and went back to sleep.)

Here are ten uses for too many leftover apples, hanging around in the bottom of the fruit bowl and looking unappealing.

tarte tatin1. Tarte tatin

2. Gordon Tracy's Favourite Way of Eating Apples - bear with me. This is our family name for apples cored and cut into wedges, served with a dish of sugar mixed with cinnamon, for dipping. The name was a desperate attempt to trick Tom, then aged 2, into eating any kind of fresh fruit or vegetable at all. He was obsessed with Thunderbirds at the time, and his favourite character was Gordon Tracy. I offer the recipe to any parents who can't get their kids to eat fruit. Feel free to rename it with your own child's favourite fictional character.

sourdough apple fritter3. Sourdough Apple Fritters

4. Cheese and apple toastie - cut an apple into quarters and grate it on a cheese grater. Also grate some Red Leicester cheese (or other cheese) and mix with the grated apple. Season with sea salt, freshly ground black pepper and ground cumin. Make into sandwiches with sliced wholemeal bread and toast (we use one of those electric toasted sandwich makers, but you can also do it under a grill)

cheese and crackers with chutney5. Chutney

6. I often chop an apple into my porridge or muesli for breakfast.

7. Apple Spiced Muffins

bag of apples8. Stuffed baked apple - Core an apple and stuff the hole with something nice - leftover Christmas mincemeat works well, my dad keeps a jar of raisins soaked in rum to stuff apples with, or just improvise a mixture of raisins, porridge oats, chopped nuts, honey, or whatever you can find in the store cupboard. Bake the stuffed apple either in the microwave (you don't need one of those stupid plastic doodads they sell in the Bettaware catalogues, just bung it in a bowl, for heaven's sake) or in a moderate oven until the apple has softened. Serve with ice cream.

9. Braised red cabbage with apple (recipe is near the bottom of the page).

picking apples10. Apple pie - Here's a little-known secret. The best apple pies are not made with cooking apples such as Bramleys. Cooking apples turn to mush when you cook them. They're great for applesauce, and that's about it. If you want large succulent pieces of apple in your apple pie, use eating apples. But let's start with the pastry:

You can use your own shortcrust pastry recipe, or ready-made pastry or a ready-made pie shell. Here is my favourite shortcrust pastry recipe for when I'm really pushing the boat out. It makes the best ever mince pies, for example. Sift 14oz plain flour into a bowl with 1 teaspoon of salt. Make a well in the centre. Add 8oz diced softened (really soft) unsalted butter, 4oz caster sugar, 8 egg yolks (sorry - this is not a frugal recipe unless you have your own chickens and plenty of eggs. But it really does make excellent pastry) and 1 teaspoon vanilla essence into the well. For apple pies I like to add some grated orange rind and ground cardamom, cinnamon or nutmeg. Rub everything in. In fact I usually heave it all into my food processor with a dough hook attachment and let it run until it looks like pastry. Bring it together into a ball and knead it lightly, then wrap it in clingfilm and chill it for at least half an hour before using.

Divide it into two, and roll one portion out, but it's a b****r to handle, so if it falls apart when you try to line your greased 9-10” pie tin with it, don't panic. Just smoosh it back together with your knuckles, and feel free to cover any holes with leftover bits of pastry and work them in until you can't the join. Put the pastry shell, and the unused portion of pastry back in the fridge whilst you sort out the filling. Oh, and turn the oven on low.

Peel, core and roughly chop about 2lbs of eating apples. Put them in a pan with the merest splash of water, 2oz sugar and a few whole cloves, cover and cook for a few minutes until the apples are tender but not mushy. Carefully drain the apples. Don't go banging them about or they'll go to mush. Carefully put the drained apples in the bottom of the pastry shell (I don't bother picking out the cloves, I rather like the burst of tongue-numbing flavour when you bite into one in your wedge of apple pie, but if you hate that you'll have to pick them all out - I advise counting them when you put them in so you can be sure you get them all). Roll out the other portion of pastry and lie it on top of the pie. Pinch the edges together to seal the top layer to the bottom. Make a couple of slits in the top of the pie to let any steam out and stop the pie going soggy or exploding. Sprinkle generously with golden brown sugar, and bake in a low oven until it's done (I don't know how long, it depends on your oven, how big your pie dish is, how thin you rolled the pastry etc. Check on it after about 25 minutes, but be ready to give it an extra 5, 10, 15 minutes or whatever until it looks golden and done. Also listen to your nose - if it smells done after 20 minutes then maybe it is. Have a look at it and see.)

Apple pie is nice hot or cold. Either way, serve with custard, ice cream, or whipped cream. But I love it best served cold with a big dollop of smetana.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Total Eclipse of the Moon

Lunar eclipse time lapse photo taken over Hayward, California.It's a full moon tonight, but not just any old full moon. This is a very special one. I'm setting my alarm clock to go off at 2:45 am because I want to see tonight's total lunar eclipse.

The moon goes around the earth once a month but its orbit is tilted, so most months it doesn't pass directly through the earth's shadow. But at least twice a year, during a full moon, some part of it will be within the earth's shadow and that's a partial lunar eclipse. Tonight we will have a total lunar eclipse which means the moon will be completely within the earth's shadow for fifty minutes.

If the earth had no atmosphere, the moon would appear black during a total lunar eclipse. But the atmosphere scatters the sunlight, so some light reaches the moon even during totality. However the moon will distinctly darken and change colour. Often it appears reddish. Some eclipses are darker than others, depending on the amount of dust in the atmosphere.

Tonight's total eclipse lasts from 03:01 am to 03:51 am GMT. It will be visible from all of North and South America, and most of Africa and Europe (including all of Britain and Ireland). The next total lunar eclipse will be on December 21st 2010 but it won't be visible from Britain. The next total lunar eclipse visible from Britain will be in 2015, seven years away, which is why I'm getting up at such a ridiculous hour to see this one.

Isn't the photo amazing? It's a multiple exposure photograph of a total eclipse in 2004, taken over Hayward, California. Click on the photo for more information, and to see its license information.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


Sunflowers by SamWe've been enjoying beautiful weather here in North Cheshire in February so far. The skies have been clear, resulting in frosty nights and warm sunny days.

Any time now my honeybees should start emerging from the hive to collect nectar from crocuses and other early flowers, and the queens should start laying eggs again.

Bumblebees too will soon be emerging. You'll first notice a small number of huge fat bumblebees - these are the queens, the only bumblebees that survive the winter. Unlike honeyebees, they truly hibernate, and then emerge in February to feed on nectar and find a nesting site. In late February or early March you'll notice a new flush of much smaller bumblebees. This is the new brood and they're scrawny and undersized because the poor old queen has had to feed them herself, and it's tough to collect enough nectar at this time of year to feed them up properly, especially when there's only one bee to do it. But the skinny first brood will feed the second brood, who will feed the third brood, and so on. By the time summer arrives you'll see lots of full-sized bumblebees buzzing about.

Bumblebees are great. They're very docile - you really have to work at it to annoy one enough for it to sting you. They're great pollinators, and if they like your garden you'll get more flowers, fruit and vegetables as a result of the work they do for you. They're cuddly fluffy little guys and I love them. If you'd like to encourage bumblebees in your garden, has instructions for building nest boxes for them.

(I know it would have made sense to illustrate this blog post with a picture of a bumblebee, but I wanted to share this painting of Van Gogh's sunflowers that Sam did. He's only 6 and I'm very proud.)

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Efergy Energy Saving Meter

Efergy energy monitorWhat a week that was - we rehearsed Mendelssohn's Elijah intensively then gave performances at Chester Cathedral on Thursday and Manchester Cathedral on Friday. It's a big work and it took considerable stamina and concentration to pull it off, but it was an incredible experience. The conductor (Paul McCreesh) was very inspiring, and the soloists were fab. I'm totally spent. I needed a good lie-in this morning, and would like to take it easy this weekend - but it's Tom's birthday tomorrow.

Today we celebrated Valentine's Day, two days late because I was singing on Thursday. My lovely Eddy got me an Efergy electricity use monitor. You clamp the sensor around the cable that feeds your electricity meter (no wiring or anything technical involved), and it sends data to a portable display unit. In no time at all I was wandering round the house turning stuff on and off and seeing how low I could get the unit to go, and what effect the kettle, electric cooker etc. had on our consumption. You can get it to display in terms of kWH, cost, or carbon emissions (you have to get the figures from your electricity bill and input them into the gadget). I love it, and I thought it was a really thoughtful Valentines' gift for me, although I can see how many women would fail to go weak at the knees on receiving something like this.

I'm not telling you what I got for Eddy. It's none of your business. But he liked it.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Tarte Tatin

tarte tatinI don't want you to get the impression that frugal cooking is all about eating stringy burned meat just because I'm too stingy to throw it out. How about this tarte tatin? The kids were moaning they were hungry so I told them there were plenty of apples in the fruit bowl. But apparently the apples "weren't nice ones". I had a look - yes, they had been there a bit too long and were starting to look wrinkly and tired. There were also two cooking apples I bought a couple of weeks ago but I can't remember why. A recipe to use up cooking apples and eating apples? Tarte tatin of course.

Tarte Tatin

Peel, core and chop a couple of big cooking apples. Toss them in a pan with a splash of water and 5oz light brown sugar. Cook until they're soft, then mash them and dump the puree in a sieve to drain - save the liquid that drains off them.

Fling 10oz plain flour, 5oz fat (I used half Pura and half margarine), and 2oz sugar in the food processor and whiz until blended, then add a little cold water until it comes together.

Roll out the pastry thin and use it to line a greased quiche tin. Spread the apple puree in the bottom of the pie. Peel, core and slice a few eating apples and arrange them on top of the puree. If you have nice red eating apples you don't need to peel them. Bake at 200C for about half an hour.

Take the liquid you kept from straining the apple puree and boil it until it is reduced. Brush it on the cooked tart to glaze, and sprinkle sparingly with cinnamon.

If you think my glaze looks a bit lumpy, you're quite right but don't panic - yours won't be. Eleanor came in crying at a crucial moment because she had fallen over and skinned her knees. By the time I had cleaned and band-aided her and given her a cuddle, my glaze had begun to congeal. That's family life.

By the way, this recipe makes too much pastry for one tarte tatin, so use the leftovers to make jam tarts. Roll the leftover pastry thin, cut into rounds, and place them in a greased jam tart tin. Put a dollop of home-made jam in each one and bake for 15 minutes. If you put them in at the same time as the tarte tatin, they'll be ready to eat just in time for a little girl with skinned knees. Very convenient.

UPDATED: The little boy from over the road came to play, helped eat all the jam tarts, and then asked me to write out the recipe so he could get his mum to make them. He also said his granny made the best pastry in the world and it tasted just like mine. That's what I like to hear.

Never Waste Food

wartime poster Don't Waste FoodI bought too much fresh meat, and didn't eat it as quickly as I planned. So rather than let it go off I decided to cook it all in the oven, and then eat the cooked meat over the next couple of days.

Unfortunately, I forgot about it. By the time I remembered it was dried-out and overdone.

Determined not to waste it, I put it in the slow cooker with a tin of tomatoes, an onion, a carrot and a bit of seasoning. I thought that if it worked and softened the dried-out meat, then that would be great. And if it didn't work I had only sacrificed a few pence worth of vegetables and electricity.

It did work - sort of. I wouldn't recommend it as a wonderful new method of cooking meat. The meat was rather stringy. But it was edible, which it wasn't when I took it out of the oven. I wouldn't have served it to guests, but it was just for me and I'd rather eat slightly stringy meat than throw food in the bin.

The lessons I have learned are:

1. You can sometimes rescue overcooked meat with a slow cooker,
2. But it's better if you don't overcook it in the first place,
3. And it's even better if you don't buy more meat than you can eat before it goes off.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Blog Carnivals

I'm so pleased with the response to my Start A Blog challenge. So far 12 people have voted in the poll to say they have started a new blog.

Mrs Green writes Little Green Blog, Sophie writes She Went That Way, Donna's husband Andy writes birds, brushes and other stuff, Pete writes Allotment 5½, Hamster writes Eating the Seasons, Karen writes furzecat (this used to be huswyf, a blog I enjoyed reading but was not permitted to leave comments on - if you blog, make sure your readers can leave comments. That's half the fun!). Karen has recently taken over the Wiggly Wigglers blog from Heather. N and J together write Bad Human! Don’t take chemicals from strangers!.

Anonymous wrote:
I have had a blog for some time, but nothing much to put in it. Maybe I will think again whether there is something interesting that I can write about - though privacy concerns would mean always worrying about how much identifying information I was revealing. N.

I've never worried about identifying information. My name, address and telephone number are in the phone book. How many chickens I have, or the make of my fridge, is not classified information. My kids' birth dates are revealed in this blog if you care to find them, but I have more sense than to use those as a password for my banking details so I don't mind. If you have reason to conceal your identity, e.g. if you have had a stalker in the past and you don't want them to find you again, then I can understand being cautious. But there's not a lot of point having a secret blog and not telling anyone.

Spreading it all about is the point of blogging. Some bloggers play it cool and pretend they don't care how many readers they have. But they lie. We all love people to read our blogs, to leave comments, and especially to link to us. So get the word out there; exchange links with other like-minded bloggers (I've just linked to all of you, so you know what to do now, don't you?).

Another great way to get more readers to your blog and to find other great blogs to link with, is to submit your best posts to blog carnivals. If the carnival host likes your post it will be mentioned in the weekly carnival, which will bring readers to your site, and improves your influence on Technorati (this is like Google for blogs - be sure to submit your blog there ASAP), your Google Page Rank and so on. You will also see lots of other bloggers who write about the same topics as you at the carnivals, you'll get ideas for posts and make friends and all the other good stuff that blogging brings.

In the last week I submitted posts to the Carnival of the Green, the Festival of Frugality, Make it from Scratch, and the Carnival of the Recipes. But if you write about economics, parenting, football, marketing, or any one of hundreds of other topics, there is a carnival for you. Find your relevant carnivals at, and submit your best posts there. When you've more confidence, maybe you'll want to host a carnival (they often rotate to a different host every week). Or even start your own.

If you feel inspired to join in this month's challenge and start your own blog, then go to and do it right now! It's free, and it's what all the cool kids are doing. Don't forget to tell us where to find your blog. And vote in the poll in the right-hand sidebar.

Authentic Entertainment

Sew for Victory wartime posterAll this week I'm quilting and singing. At the rehearsal for Elijah last night it occurred to me that I enjoy the rehearsal process as much as I enjoy the actual performances. From the point of view of the audience, the performance seems to be the important thing. But if there was some way I could wave a magic wand and give a good performance without all the trouble of rehearsals, I'd hate that because often the performance passes in a flash, but the rehearsals can be a blast. Well, sometimes. Sometimes they're dull and repetitive, or really hard and tiring. But on the whole it's a thrill to get together with a hundred or so other people and create something out of nothing, polish it until it is as good as it can be, and then show it to an appreciative audience. So, much like my quilting and other crafting, I do it because I get a buzz from the process, not just as a means to an end. There are much quicker and cheaper ways to obtain bedcoverings than quilting them yourself. But they're not nearly as much fun.

Another reason I love choral singing and crafting is that the end result is unique, a consequence of the particular ingredients (e.g. the individual singers and conductor, or the particular pieces of fabric you had). To me that makes it much more precious and worthwhile than a mass-produced item. I had much more fun at the Manchester Lesbian and Gay Chorus concert I attended the other week than I have ever had at any Hollywood movie I've ever seen. Somehow the Hollywood movies have a slick, corporate feel. Even though movies cost millions of dollars to make, and I'm sure all the actors, writers, cameramen and everybody else gave it their all, yet they feel cheap and disposable to me. TV shows are usually even worse. But when I go to the theatre to see a play, or to a concert, I get a sense that I'm seeing something unique, something with an authenticity that Hollywood movies and TV shows entirely lack. My brain is engaged, not dulled, and the performers are communicating with me personally. If I nod off, or clap half-heartedly, or start doing the crossword, the performers will detect my indifference and it will put them off. But my involvement and appreciation will energise the performers to give their best performance.

When was the last time you went to the theatre or to a concert? Or to a comedy club or a folk club? How about enjoying some authentic entertainment for a change?

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

My Scrap Quilt

basting the quilt sandwichWARNING - If you habitually read Bean Sprouts with images turned off and if you think this quilt might be for you and if you want it to be a surprise, then don't click on the picture.

My scrap quilt is coming along nicely. The centre (the bit made up of patches) is finished, and the borders are added. In other words the top (the bit you're supposed to look at) is complete and it's time to baste the quilt sandwich. I made a back by sewing together about a dozen biggish pieces of fabric from my stash, then I laid it on the floor and placed the batting (stuffing) and the top onto it.

Because the top is large these three layers need to be held together temporarily whilst I am machine-quilting it. At first I tried to do it with a quilt tack gun. This is the same thing shops use to hold price labels onto clothes with a plastic tag. Unfortunately when I had shot hundreds of little plastic tags through the quilt and turned it over there were lots of wrinkles and folds on the back. This is no good, but I couldn't face snipping the tags and basting it with the gun again because my back was in agony. I had to try another way.

I've never used spray baste before. It's a sort of glue you spray onto the batting and lie the fabric on top. You can unpeel it and reposition if it isn't quite right. I bought a can and gave it a try - now I'm a reluctant convert. A convert because it does exactly what it says on the tin. Reluctant because I'm not happy about relying on a product that comes in an aerosol can when there is a low-impact alternative. However I had to balance the impact on the environment with the impact on my back, and the spray can came out a clear winner (but I've been told that a basting technique explained in Harriet Hargrave's book Heirloom Machine Quilting will solve all my problems - I'll let you know how it goes when the book arrives).

By eleven o'clock last night the quilt was basted to my satisfaction. This morning I made a label and slip-stitched it to the back, so the quilting stitches will go all the way through it and make the label impossible to remove. And I've begun to stitch-in-the-ditch (machine quilt straight lines along all the major seams). Once that's done the fun can start and I can add decorative free-motion quilting - a bit like free-hand drawing with a sewing machine. I still have no idea what designs I will use. That's how I usually work - I create one stage at a time and then stare at it for a bit until inspiration strikes about what to do next. I don't usually plan the whole quilt with blocks, setting, borders, backing, quilting and binding all clear in my head before I begin work.

It could be weeks before this quilt is finished. It depends how carried away I get with the quilting. I usually quilt things to death, with lots of very close stitching lines. But this is a big quilt and I might be able to resist the temptation to stipple all over it as that would take forever. I think a few big motifs are more in order for the centre, with some kind of pattern in the border, such as feathers.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Busy Week

I've had a crazy busy weekend and I've got a crazy busy week ahead of me. My choir, St George's Singers, are rehearsing Mendelssohn's Elijah with Chetham's School of Music and Bach Chester Singers, conducted by Paul McCreesh, on Tuesday and Wednesday evening in preparation for performances in Chester Cathedral on Thursday (14th Feb) and Manchester Cathedral on Friday (15th Feb). We're also performing in Windsor Castle on Saturday 8th March, the day before we perform Rachmaninoff's Vespers in Gorton Monastery with readings by Terry Waite and Joan Bakewell.

If any of this is going over your head I'll sum it up - I'm getting to rehearse some really fabulous music with an internationally regarded conductor and perform it in four different wonderful historical settings. It's going to be hard work but lots of fun, and should be the kind of thing I remember for a long time.

If you'd like to come to any of these concerts, Elijah tickets are £14, £12 children £2, available from 0161 838 7244 or email Vespers tickets are sadly sold out, but if you want to book early for our next concert, we're performing Bach's Mass in B Minor on Saturday 22nd June, tickets are £11 (students and children £8), £16, £21, £26 Group concessions for booking 10 or more, available from The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Old Moon in the New Moon's Arms

Leonardo sketch of earthshineI just popped out to post a letter and noticed the old moon in the new moon's arms. Also known as the earthshine, or ashen glow, it is caused by sunlight reflected off the earth onto the dark side of the moon. When this happens, you can see the bright illuminated part of the moon (the new moon) cradling the dimly lit circle of the old moon.

I wish I had a really good camera so I could take pictures of things like this. But instead I'm illustrating this post with a sketch of earthshine by Leonardo Da Vinci as part of his Codex Leicester, written between 1506 and 1510.

I Believe...

illustration of a man sawing a plankI believe that a lot of people don't understand what
"sustainability" means. So I'll try to explain it with a parable:

A foolish builder wanted to build himself a house that would be grander and taller than all the other houses in his neighbourhood. He built it as tall as he could until he ran out of bricks. But still the house was not tall enough to satisfy the builder. So he took a chisel and carefully chipped away the cement around one of the bricks at the bottom of his house. When it came loose, he cemented it in place on the top. The house was a little taller. It didn't fall down. It didn't even wobble. And there were plenty more bricks at the bottom. "Oh good," thought the builder, "I can keep taking bricks from the bottom and adding them to the top". And so he began chipping away at the cement around another brick...

I don't think I need to tell you how the story ends. You can figure it out for yourself. The foolish builder's solution to unlimited growth was unsustainable. This is what we mean when we say that a system of farming is unsustainable, or a method of harvesting water, or a means of getting energy. It means you can't sustain it. It doesn't mean "not nice", or "not ideal", or "not eco-friendly in some vague way, probably having to do with pandas". It means "if you keep on doing it your house will collapse in a pile of rubble and kill anyone inside".

Sustainability isn't about whether or not I approve of something. It's about the laws of physics. And as Scotty from Star Trek used to say, "Ye cannae change the laws of physics".

How to Make a Quilt

I have shown you two ways to make patchwork using recycled fabrics - English paper piecing and crazy patchwork. But how do you turn your patchwork into a finished piece? A patchwork is just a piece of fabric made from lots of smaller pieces sewn together. You can use it to make anything you would make out of fabric - curtains, tablecloth, clothes and so on. But traditionally the crafts of patchwork and quilting are closely associated, and most people who make patchwork want to turn it into a quilt. There are a number of ways to do this, but I'm going to show you a way that is quick and suitable for a recycled quilt made of lots of different types of fabric. Fine hand-quilting would be difficult or impossible on such a quilt, so instead I'm going to show you a utility quilting technique called tieing or knotting.

Click on any of the pictures to see a larger version.

1. A quilt is three layers of fabric held together with stitches. The top layer is your patchwork. The middle layer is the stuffing or batting. You can use an old blanket, perhaps one that is too worn to use anymore, or one from the charity (thrift) shop. If you do use an old blanket, give is a good wash and dry first. Alternatively you can use purpose-made quilt wadding from a quilting or craft store. Be sure to read the instructions - some of them need to be pre-washed or they will shrink dramatically and ruin your quilt. The bottom layer is the quilt back. It's often a single large piece of fabric, or it can be pieced together from smaller bits. An old sheet is fine for our recyled quilt project.

drawing of quilt sandwich2. Lay out the quilt back on the floor or a table if it fits, with the wrong side up. Smooth it out so there are no wrinkles. Carefully lay the batting on top, so there are no wrinkles in either layer. Carefully lay the patchwork on top of this, right side up. Take time to ensure all three layers are smooth and wrinkle-free. The bottom two layers should be rather bigger than the patchwork. The batting should be perhaps 2" bigger, and the back about 4" bigger. This is known as your quilt sandwich.

drawing of a square knot3. Now you are going to secure the three layers of your quilt sandwich together with a series of square knots, at about 6" intervals. You choose where you are going to place the knots. At the corners of your blocks? At the centres? Corners and centres? It's up to you. Don't use regular sewing cotton thread - pick something heavier, such as embroidery cotton or perle. Thread your needle with a long thread - you're going to make lots of knots one after another and cut the threads afterwards. Pass the needle through the quilt and up again, leaving a short "tail". Ensure you caught all three layers, and didn't somehow miss the quilt back. Make a square knot (remember left over right, right over left) and tie tightly, holding the quilt sandwich together tightly. Do not cut the thread.

drawing of how to place knots4. Now move along to the next point you're going to make a knot, and do the same thing. Make sure you leave enough thread between two knots so that the quilt stays lying flat. What I mean is, don't pull the thread between one knot and another so the quilt puckers. Keep making knots until you run out of thread, then rethread and start again.

5. Once you have knotted the whole quilt, which should be pretty speedy, you can go back and trim all the long threads. Give every knot one last tug to make sure it is tight and will not come undone, then trim the tails to your desired length. I don't like big long "tassels" but some people prefer that look. If you trim them too short, though, the knots may come undone.

There is a way to knot a quilt with a sewing machine. Instead of making knots by hand, you machine stitch on the spot, then make about four long but closely-spaced zig-zag stitches, then stitch on the spot again, and that replaces a knot. Sounds quicker than tying, doesn't it? But to make sure the quilt sandwich stays flat and smooth you have to baste it together somehow, either with safety pins or long hand-stitches, whilst it is lying flat on the floor. It seems to me if you're going to do that, you might as well tie it on the floor and that would actually be quicker than basting by hand and then tieing it by machine.

drawing to how to bind a quilt6. You're almost done. Now you just need to bind your quilt to tidy up the edges. Trim the batting to exactly the same size as the patchwork. Trim the back of the quilt to about 2" larger than the quilt. Fold the backing over the patchwork, enclosing the batting. Then fold the raw edge of the backing under by 1". Pin in place, all the way around the quilt.

drawing of a finished quilt7. Handstitch the binding in place (slipstitched with normal sewing thread) and that's it! You should seriously consider adding your name, location and date to the back of the quilt, even if only with a fabric marker pen.

If you use these instructions to make a recycled patchwork quilt, I'd love to see a picture of it. Email me, and let me know if you're happy for your photo to be published on Bean Sprouts.

This is Part 3 of a 3-part series. Part 1 is How to Make Patchwork and part 2 is Another Way to Make Patchwork.

Friday, February 08, 2008

What's Up With this Chicken?

scratty chickenWhat's up with this chicken? Here's what she normally looks like. But since we introduced two new chickens a couple of weeks ago she has been losing feathers. I can think of several reasons why chickens might lose feathers:

1. Mites. But if she has mites surely the others would have them too. Whatever it is, she's the only one affected.

2. Pecking. Unlikely, because she's the top chicken. I've never seen her and our other old girl peck each other. Both the old girls chase the two new girls, but the new girls have all their feathers.

3. Moult. It's the wrong time of year. Then again, chickens can be deliberately contrary. It could be moult.

4. Stress. I reckon this is the most likely cause. It started when we introduced new chickens. None of them are laying terribly well, so I know they are all stressed. There are lots of black feathers below the spot where she roosts. I think she's pulling them out herself at nights.

I might treat them for mites, just in case that's it. But I think it's more probably the stress of adding new chickens that is making her pull out her own feathers. I plan to do nothing and just observe them for a bit longer. With any luck she'll get used to the new status quo and return to her old self.

Another Way to Make Patchwork

Yesterday I showed you how to recycle old clothes and textiles using the technique known as English paper piecing. There is another way to make patchwork that is also well-suited to recycling fabrics of mixed weights, and that is crazy patchwork.

In crazy patchwork, scraps of fabric are stitched onto a foundation fabric. You might wonder why, if you already have a perfectly good piece of fabric, you'd want to sew more bits of fabric all over it. Well for one thing, you don't have to use a perfectly good piece of fabric for the foundation. You could use a worn sheet that is getting too thin for further use, or you could use an old tablecloth that is stained beyond redemption. For another thing, by adding more layers you make the cloth heavier and more suited for bedding. Also the end result is more decorative than a plain piece of fabric. And finally, it's a lot of fun.

drawing of cutting foundations squares from a sheet of fabric1. I don't recommend you just start sewing fabric to one end of a bedsheet and keep going until it is all covered. It would be too unwieldy. Better to start by cutting your foundation fabric into smaller squares. How big depends on the size of your scraps. If you have a lot of quite large scraps, choose a large block size, maybe 12" square. If your scraps are all pretty small 6" might be a better size. Well, personally, I would use 6.5" squares, so when I sew them back together with a 1/4" seam allowance, the finished squares are 6" exactly.

drawing of a patch pinned to a foundation square2. Pin a scrap of fabric on the foundation square, with the right side up.

drawing of two scraps pinned to a foundation square3. Pin another scrap of fabric right side up, slightly overlapping the first.

drawing of two scraps stitched to a foundation square4. Now stitch through all three layers of fabric using a decorative stitch that covers the raw edge. Don't panic! This isn't as hard as it sounds. Use a thicker thread than regular sewing cotton - embroidery thread is good and it looks nice. Avoid metallic threads unless you're already experienced at using them, as they can be hard to work with. The simplest decorative stitch is buttonhole stitch. You'll quickly get good at this. If you want to advance to herringbone stitch, or chain stitch, or even more exotic stitches, be my guest. But if you stick to buttonhole stitch you'll still have a beautiful patchwork.

drawing of a finished crazy patch5. Pin on a third patch, overlapping the first two, and stitch all three layers at the join. Keep adding patches until your foundation square is covered. Remove the pins. Trim off any parts of patches that overlap the edges of the foundation square.

6. Keep making squares until you have as many as you want. Sew them together, either by hand or with a sewing machine.

7. That's it. As promised, I will soon show you how to make your patchwork items into a quilt. As crazy patchwork is heavier than English patchwork, you could hem the edges and use it as a summer bedcovering without quilting it. Or you could use it as a decorative tablecloth, make it into clothes or curtains or anything else.

The Victorians used this technique to use up every single scrap of expensive velvet and brocade fabrics left over from dresmaking. They made some absolutely stunning quilts.

This is Part 2 of a 3-part series. Part 1 is How to Make Patchwork and Part 3 is How to Make a Quilt.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Crazy Golf

I received this email today from an amateur golfing website offering to exchange links:


I respectfully request a link to my site URL removed from your site. I am sure my visitors would find your content relevant and interesting. If you would be so kind as to place my link and then email me the location of the link I will post your information in our Link Directory URL removed as soon as I receive it from you.

This was my response:


Thanks for your link exchange request, but I don't think amateur golfers are really relevant to my blog topic of sustainable living and allotment gardening, unless you'd like to offer me an acre or two of fairway I could keep a goat on and raise a few veggies. Actually, I'd be happy with a couple of acres of rough.

Sincerely, Mel Rimmer

How to Make Patchwork

There are many kinds of patchwork. I'm hooked on the kind that uses expensive top-quality printed cotton, fancy tools such as rotary cutters and self healing mats, and involves very precise measuring, cutting and sewing - a single thread-width too wide or too small can make the difference between a lovely quilt and a lumpy wonky disaster.

But there is another kind of patchwork (actually there are several) more suited to recycling used clothing, upholstery fabric, and so on. It uses paper or card templates to ensure accuracy, even with fabrics of different weights or stretchiness. It's called English paper piecing and my mum taught me to do it when I was very young. I'm going to teach it to you now.

1. Measure a square accurately and cut it out of heavy card. Use this as your template to cut lots more squares of waste paper or card. If your fabrics are quite heavy, card is better. Paper is adequate for lighter fabrics such as cotton. You can use any size of square. Bigger squares mean less sewing and your quilt will be finished quicker. Smaller squares make better use of your fabric with less waste. 4" squares is a good compromise.

drawing of a scrap of fabric and a square of paper2. Cut pieces of fabric that are larger than your papers all around. You need at least 1/4" overlap at all points. Place a paper square on to the wrong side of the fabric scrap, then fold the edges over and secure.

drawing of a scrap of fabric folded over a square of paper3. Traditionally you secure the fabric on to the papers with large tacking stitches, and this is what I always do. But Gabrielle from Permaculture in Brittany uses masking tape, and Stephanie from A Roker Artist once used staples (she was using very heavy upholstery fabrics - staples would make big holes in finer fabric so I don't recommend them). Check that the pretty side of the fabric is showing - if the grotty side is showing you've tacked your fabric on upside-down.

drawing of a scrap of fabric tacked onto a square of paper4. When you have a stack of tacked (or taped) fabric squares, lie two of them face-to-face and stitch them together with small neat stitches. Just nip the edges of the fabric. Try not to sew through the paper, although it can't be helped sometimes. Open your pieces out flat - they should lie nicely and the stitches should be unobtrusive.

drawing of two squares sewn together5. Keep sewing squares together. Don't remove the papers until the square is entirely surrounded by other squares.

6. That's it. You can stop when you run out of fabric or when your patchwork is as big as you want it. I'll write another post soon about how to turn your patchwork into a quilt. But you could also turn it into a tablecloth (just hem the edges), curtains (there are instructions all over the internet for how to make curtains), clothing, a duvet cover, or anything you like.

Other shapes you can use are hexagons (if you arrange the colours carefully you can make the traditional pattern known as Grandmother's Flower Garden), diamonds (careful colour placement makes the traditional pattern known as tumbling blocks), rectangles, lozenges or any other shape that tesselates.drawing of tesselatinng hexagonsdrawing of tesselating diamonds

This is Part 1 of a three part series. Part 2 is Another Way to Make Patchwork and part 3 is How to Make a Quilt.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Elephant Pancake

Aberystwyth railway posterIt's ridiculously early this year, but today is Shrove Tuesday - pancake day. Traditionally in Britain we eat pancakes, often served with sugar and lemon, on the last day before Lent.

The best pancakes in the world used to be made in the Welsh Fudge Shop in Aberystwyth, now sadly closed down. They made all sorts of pancakes. I fondly remember pineapple and Malibu pancakes, the hot chocolate fudge pancake of course, and peanut butter and banana. But their finest creation was the elephant pancake.

I worked in the Fudge shop as a short-order cook for a while, so I can reveal the secrets of the elephant pancake. Surprisingly, the pancakes were made from McDougal's pancake mix, mixed with water "by eye", rather than from flour, eggs and milk as you'd expect. The orange and Grand Marnier and the pineapple and Malibu pancakes originally had the named liqueurs in, but one day they ran out and the chef (not me) improvised with substituting orange juice for the Grand Marnier and pineapple juice for the Malibu. There were no complaints so they never bothered ordering any more liqueurs. But I remember the day I ordered a pancake with liqueur and noticed it wasn't the real deal any more.

The recipe for the elephant pancake is as follows:

Elephant Pancake

Put a pancake on a large plate. Spread tinned cherry pie filling on top. Put another pancake on top and place tinned pineapple chunks on that. Pour maple syrup over the pineapple. Put another pancake on and place banana slices on that. Pour maple syrup over the banana. Put the final pancake on top and microwave the whole lot for a couple of minutes. Pour hot chocolate fudge sauce over it all, sprinkle on dessicated coconut and serve with ice cream and cream.

White Knight Revealed

Big Green Gathering graphicYou may recall that the Big Green Gathering was saved by the 11th-hour intervention of a mystery "white knight". Well the BGG's January newsletter revealed that the white knight is Stuart Galbraith
...whose previous productions included the Live 8 concert in Hyde Park in 2006 and the Live Earth concert at Wembley in 2007. Stuart's new company, Killimanjaro Live Ltd. (KLL), is providing the finance to settle our debts, but the BGG's democratic one-share-per-person structure has ensured that we retain the control of the company and the event.

The newsletter spells out emphatically that the BGG has not been taken over, it hasn't sold out, it hasn't diluted or altered its original vision.

I don't get the impression, though, that Stuart Galbraith is prepared to pump money into a bottomless pit, so BGG still needs to be able to be profitable (as it always was until Mendip District Council and Avon & Somerset Police added around £120,000 to the costs). So the board of directors decided to increase the cost of shares in BGG to £80 from March 1st. If you hurry, you can still buy a share (you're only allowed one each) at the original price of £40. Go to The Big Green Gathering website to apply for a share in the most exciting green festival in Europe.

MTV Switch

MTV switch logoTwo things make me despair - the unthinking consumerism of many young people, and the hempen earnestness of the green movement. I don't usually doom-monger, but we're all doomed if we can't get the next generation to embrace green ideals. I don't claim to be home with the downies myself, so I don't know how to engage the iPod generation. But fortunately there are some people out there who are doing a pretty good job of it.

For example, there is Zap Root:
ZapRoot is an unconventional bite-sized news show that covers the fast changing world of the modern Green Revolution. With sarcasm, silliness, & sanity, ZapRoot encourages you to have a better time while making a better world.

Which is part of Viro Pop:
ViroPop: Environmentalism Made Fun. Okay, let’s get this straight. ViroPop is NOT a new virus-flavored soda. And ZapRoot is not a show about bombarding plants with laser beams. What is ViroPop then? Well, you could think of it as a salad. It’s green, sure, but also cool, fresh, crisp and tasty. And full of surprises. And good for You. ViroPop is the first network on the Internet to treat the new environmental pop culture with a sense of irreverent fun. Long dreary powerpoint presentations…be gone! This is the happy Green Revolution.

And now there's MTV Switch:
Switch is MTV Networks International's Global Climate Change Campaign. We'll be looking for the best ideas and innovations that can help us reinvent how we live in ways that are cool for us and the planet. (We'll also be getting ideas from you guys, no matter how wacky...) This isn't about what we can't do, it's about what we can. It's time to Switch.

You can tell MTV Switch is cool and hip because it has its own blog. The blog covers everything from non-profit efforts, to "green" fashion, to practical tips on helping preserve the environment.

It gives me hope. Maybe sites like these will encourage a few young people to be more environmentally conscious. And maybe they'll even encourage a few green activists to be less sanctimonious and dull.

Monday, February 04, 2008

There's a Rat on Mi Bird Table, What Am I Gonna Do?

Ratatouille rateDad (Bill in Ballaugh) has been enjoying feeding the birds and watching them from his kitchen window. But he phoned me up for advice when he saw a rat helping itself to the bird food.

The chances are he's always had rats in his garden. He just hasn't spotted one before. He lives on a hillside in rural Ireland, surrounded by small dairy farms. The landscape will be full of rats, and it's OK. It's probably also full of field mice, foxes, squirrels, bats, rabbits, hares and all sorts of lovely things. If he saw any of those in his garden he'd be delighted, but he's not so keen on the rat. I don't blame him - if I saw a rat I'd wonder if it might come in the house, where it definitely would not be welcome. I wouldn't welcome squirrels or bats etc. in the house either. But still, I don't think spotting a rat in your garden is cause to panic.

There's no need to stop feeding the birds. But there are steps he can take to try to make sure the birds get the food and the rat does not:

  • Feed on the bird table, not on the floor.

  • Rat-proof the bird table - an inverted cone of metal or chickenwire, or one of those big round tins you get chocolates in at Christmas, inverted and attached round the post, might stop rats climbing up.

  • Only feed enough for one day. Feed in the morning, and clear up any leftover food at night. Birds don't come to the birdtable at night so this doesn't deprive them of anything. But it deprives the rat of a midnight snack. I know dad saw his rat in the daytime, but it could have been visiting the table at night for weeks before he saw it.

  • I wonder if those squirrel-proof bird feeders also keep rats out? I've seen a spinning bird-feeder - the weight of a squirrel or a rat causes it to spin faster and faster, flinging the unwanted mammal right off. The video is hysterical. I think if I had one I'd be praying for squirrels and rats to vsit it, just for the laugh.

New Blogs

Romany caravans at Bunratty folk parkThere's been a fabulous response to the Start a Blog Challenge.

So far 5 people have clicked on "I've started a new blog" in the Start a Blog challenge poll (in the right-hand sidebar). But only two have told me where to find their blogs:

Ilex started Homesteading in a Condo, and Grant is writing Grant's Rants.

Lisa promises to start a blog soon. Be sure to tell us where to find it, Lisa.

And several people have told me about blogs they already had. Some of them I knew about already, and some were new to me.

Suzanne writes The Tale of my Allotment. Wicked Gardener writes Wicked Gardener. The Shopping Sherpa writes The Shopping Sherpa. Sandra writes Sandra's Garden. Kethry writes Urbania to Stoneheads. VP writes Veg Plotting. Benjymous writes Grapefruitopia. Martian writes Life on Mars. The Crafty Gardener has a whopping four blogs - The Gardener Side of Crafty Gardener, Sow then Grow ... by Crafty Gardener, The Crafty Side of Crafty Gardener and Crafts & Swaps for Guiding Members. Heather T is also a multi-blog blogger, writing Tinky McFrog (a knitting blog) and Make A Bag (which does exactly what it says on the tin). Heather says:

Make A Bag gets a couple hundred visitors per week, but very few returns and even fewer comments. I'd love it if people would go over and leave me a comment about the site!

Green Digit Media runs Best Green Blogs, a directory site for green blogs, natch. You should all submit your blogs there to help increase your own readership, and to join in the community of green bloggers.

Blotanical has also been mentioned. It's a gardening directory site, so if your blog is about gardening submit it there as well. Of course you can also use Best Green Blogs and Blotanical to find other great blogs. Reading other people's blogs and responding to them is all part of this community of bloggers. If you don't already have a blog of your own, I challenge you to start one and join the community. Tell us where to find it by leaving a comment, and don't forget to vote in the poll in the right-hand sidebar.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Review: Seasons of Love

Manchester Lesbian and Gay ChorusI went to a concert by the Manchester Lesbian and Gay Chorus last night. A friend of mine was thinking of joining them, and wanted to go to the concert to check them out. She asked me to go with her, and I'm really glad she did because we had a great night.

They are a community choir, which means you don't have to audition to join, and they perform a much lighter repertoire than my usual choir, St George's Singers. Last night's concert included numbers such as Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue, Can You Feel The Love Tonight (from Disney's The Lion King) and Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend.

They have a lovely sound, beautifully blended, and I was very impressed how well they maintained pitch considering they performed a capella (without accompaniment) and they are not trained singers. They sang with lots of energy and sensitivity, helped by the fact that they learn all their music by ear since most of them do not read music. This meant they all kept unbroken eye contact with their conductor, professional choral trainer Jeff Borradaile, who used exaggerated changes in dynamic and tempo to add vitality and interest to the music, and the choir followed him perfectly.

Interest was also added by the choir occasionally splitting into smaller groups - a group of 9 men (The Cocquettes) and a group of 7 women (The Sapphonics). There were also two spoken monologues during the evening, which added variety to the evening.

They seem to be a friendly, tight-knit group who have a lot of fun. This, coupled with the great quality of the singing, convinced my friend that she did indeed want to join them. As we chatted to people in the bar after the concert I was invited to join too, but I don't actually qualify. And in any case I do something else on Monday evenings, when they rehearse. But I'm looking forward to attending more of their concerts to support my friend when she joins.

I think my favourite piece last night was Ysaye Barnwell's For Each Child That's Born. Some of the lyrics are:
We are our grandmother's prayers
We are our grandfather's dreamings
We are the breath of the ancestors
We are the spirit of all.

Cartoon by Climate Cartoons. Click on the panel to see the complete strip.

cantankerous frank cartoon panel