Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Home-Made Butter

home-made butterOne of the advantages of knowing how to make butter is that when you take your eye off the whipped cream for too long and ruin it, you don't have to pour it down the sink.

To make butter deliberately (or by accident), beat cream in a food processor until it whips, then keep beating until it collapses again. If you stop the beaters at this point you'll see a curdled-looking mess of yellow buttery lumps and white buttermilk. Keep beating until the yellow lumps come together. It'll probably be soft and the beaters will smear it out, rather than a hard lump that goes "thud thud", but stop anyway.

Pour or scrape it all out into a sieve over a dish. The thin buttermilk will pour into the dish - keep it to make scones or soda bread. The butter will stay in the sieve, but it still contains buttermilk in little holes like a sponge. Squeeze the butter in your clean hands to get the buttermilk out, and rinse it in clean water. Keep squeezing and rinsing it - if you leave the buttermilk behind you butter will go rancid.

Once you have pure butter, put it in a dish and use it. It's delicious - cleaner and fresher-tasting than shop-bought butter. And so much better than pouring your ruined whipped cream down the sink.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

St John's Day

Da Vinci's John the BaptistBean Sprouts is not Wikipedia. When I write a post about the summer solstice I don't include every fine point about the astronomical definition, how it fits in to the various definitions of "summer", and its social significance throughout history. Bean Sprouts is my personal blog and I write about what the solstice means to me personally, and how it fits into my philosophy.

I studied astronomy at university and so I am more sympathetic to the helio-centric (based on the movements of the sun) definition of "midsummer" than any other. The solstice "feels" like midsummer to me. But there are other dates that vie for the title. Today is one of them - June 24th, St John's Day.

If you visit the Wikipedia page about Midsummer you can learn about the difference between the Julian and Gregorian calendars, and why it is that 24th June used to occur on the solstice but now is a few days later. The (presumably) pre-Christian solstice celebrations (we really have very little evidence about it, but we make some educated guesses and some wild leaps of faith) were Christianised into the feast of St John the Baptist. For many people, 24th June, St John's Day, is still midsummer. They have bonfires, feasts, dancing and all the other things people do on high days. In Britain we don't have nearly enough of these occasions any more. Damn Puritans.

Well I'm going to a party tonight, not for St John's Day but my choir's end-of-season party. We'll have feasting and singing and perhaps dancing. No bonfire though. I hope you have a happy midsummer, too.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Mass in B Minor

Last night I sang Bach's Mass in B Minor with St George's Singers at the Manchester Bridgewater Hall. We had a stellar line-up of soloists, including Nancy Argenta and Michael George, although I agree with the reviewer from the Manchester Evening News who thought that the countertenor Tim Mead (a last-minute replacement for Robin Blaze) stole the show.

Of the choir, the MEN reviewer said:
The way they handled the complex choral writing, whether in four, five, or eight parts, producing a mellow, balanced sound every time, is a tribute to the qualities of the choir's members and the skill at work in their training.
He seemed to especially enjoy the Kyrie and Sanctus which we sang from memory:
... there was no forcing in the singing there or anywhere else: instead a transparent sound which demonstrated how well the choristers knew their notes.
You can read the full review here.

It was a thrilling end to a wonderful season. In May we sang The Daily Service live on Radio 4. In March we sang Rachmaninov's Vespers at Gorton Monastery with readings by Terry Waite and Joan Bakewell. In February we sang Elijah three times with Paul McCreesh, an internationally renowned conductor, which was a huge thrill. We sang Brahms' German Requiem in a day in January, and carol concerts of course in December. In November we performed a very challenging programme of 20th Century English choral music which was hard work and very nerve-wracking, but gave us a fantastic springboard for everything that followed.

We've got 2 months off now before we resume in September. Tomorrow will be the end-of-season party - everyone brings a plate of food and a bottle of drink to share, and we get up and sing silly songs and crack jokes and have fun together for one last time before the summer break.

I can't imagine life without music, without singing and playing, practicing and performing music, going to concerts and listening to CDs, and all the friends I have found because of a shared love of music. I love teaching guitar to 6-11 year olds, because lessons like that set me on the path to lifelong music-making. It's great to pass the baton to a new generation.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Sunday Funnies

I'm experimenting with a different format for Marc Roberts' Throbgoblins cartoons. Let me know if you like them this way or if you prefer the old "click through to read the full strip" format.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Happy Solstice

It is the summer solstice today, midsummer's day, the longest day of the year. To my southern hemisphere readers is it the winter solstice, midwinter, the shortest day of the year. But I am in England and do not apologise for my northern-hemisphere-centricity.

It feels like the high point of the year, like being on a Ferris wheel when you reach the very top. The sun climbs to its highest point in the sky today. It is in the sky for longer than any other day of the year. Tonight the sun will barely dip below the horizon, and if the sky is clear you may still be able to see a pre-dawn glow at midnight.

I'm not planning any sort of celebration myself. But it's important that I know today is the solstice. It's important it doesn't just go past without being remarked. It is one of the landmarks of the year. From now on the days get shorter - the decline is slow at first and we shall have long hot days for quite a while to come. By the equinox in late September we'll be halfway to midwinter. But that is a long way off yet. Today is midsummer. I hope you have a good one.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Work-Life Balance

It's been a week since I posted here. I've never had such a long break from posting except when I was away on holiday. I've taken on a lot more work - 50% more, at least until October. It's more money as well, and that's nice but it's not the reason I'm doing it. I'm a university lecturer and some students found themselves without a tutor half way through the course, so I stepped in to fill the breach. I enjoy my job and I'm glad to be able to support these students. But the extra work is a burden and it has reminded me why I don't normally work so much - it messes up my work-life balance.

I work part-time, mostly from home although every couple of weeks I give a face-to-face tutorial in Liverpool or Manchester. I don't need a childminder or any child-care because I can take my kids to school and pick them up and be with them during the holidays. I reckon I'm as financially well off as if I worked full-time and paid for child-care, so I'm not at all tempted to go full time. If I want to spend some time on the allotment on a sunny day I can, because I can do my marking in the evening or at the weekend instead. I can go to my bees when I need to, or spend the afternoon making jam. I can do my shopping on a weekday morning instead of Friday night or Saturday when the shops are a crush. I feel very lucky.

There are disadvantages. It can be rather lonely. It isn't the glittering career I once dreamed of, it's much more humdrum than that. And because I don't have a clear division between work and not-work, I don't ever quite feel "off duty". When Ed comes home from work and kicks off his shoes, I can see the work stress fall off him. But I still have the dinner to make, some laundry to fold, and I might be planning to mark 6 essays after dinner.

On the other hand, I don't have work stress that I need to escape from. I remember that stress from when I used to work full time and I don't miss it one bit. It eats your soul.

I'm glad I took on this extra work. I'm glad to be able to help the students. The extra money will be nice for a while. But mainly I'm glad because it helped me realise why I don't usually work this hard.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Cat Day

Maine Coon kitten Tic Tac ToeI think there are already quite enough photographs of cats on the Internet, and I have no intention of adding many more. But I can't resist sharing with you a picture of my new cat. His name is Tic Tac Toe, and he's my birthday present from Ed. I wanted a cat and I'd have been happy with a rescue mog, but Ed offered to buy me a Maine Coon because he knows I've always wanted one. We found a local breeder and got to know him, and I picked out Tic Tac almost three months ago. But he's only just grown old enough to leave his mum now, so I'll be collecting him tonight.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Money-Saving Toothpaste Tip

toothpasteThere's a hoary old urban legend about a high-level meeting of toothpaste executives trying to come up with an idea to sell more toothpaste. A lowly cleaning woman overhears the meeting and suggests her own idea - make the hole bigger.

Have you ever actually read the instructions on a tube of toothpaste? They say "Use a pea-sized amount". But the photograph on the box always shows a long "worm" of toothpaste on the brush - that's about four or five times as much as you actually need.

But don't take my word for it. Last night I picked the brains of a friend of mine, Geoff Taylor, retired Dean of Postgraduate Dentistry at the University of Manchester. I asked him whether toothpaste was necessary at all, or whether thorough brushing without paste would suffice. I've tried brushing my teeth without paste sometimes when we ran out. It tastes pretty nasty, as all the bits of stuff you brush loose are released into your mouth. Mint-flavoured toothpaste makes brushing much more pleasant. But once you rinse with water and eat your breakfast, it doesn't really make any difference -your mouth just tastes of coffee and corn flakes by then regardless of what you used to brush your teeth.

Geoff said that toothpaste is worthwhile, especially for children who should use a fluoridated toothpaste. But he pointed out to me that everybody uses far too much toothpaste because of the images used in marketing the stuff. He recommends that you spread your toothpaste across your brush, not along it, to get a pea-sized amount.

He also said that, in his professional opinion, mouthwashes were not necessary for dental health. And he told me that people should floss if advised to by their dentist, but it is not necessary for everyone.

You're not going to save enough money to retire early by using less toothpaste. Nor are you going to reduce your carbon footprint significantly. But it's a lesson in using your brain to reduce overconsumption without hardship. What else are you using too much of because of sneaky marketing? When you wash your hair do you always "rinse and repeat"? Then you're using twice as much shampoo as you need to. It's hard for a company to get twice as many customers, but it's quite easy for them to persuade their existing customers to use twice as much. Read the instructions and think hard - how much do you really need?

One final thought; have you noticed that toothpaste tubes dont stay rolled up nowadays when you get to the end of the tube? It says here that's so you can always see the whole logo.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Carnival Round Up

This week, Bean Sprouts has been featured in the following carnivals:

Festival of Frugality #128 featured Zilok Launches in the UK
Make It From Scratch - Ode to Grandmothers Edition featured Kool-Aid Dyed Yarn
Carnival of Environmental Issues featured Save the Planet - Stop Shopping
Farmers Market Fare 7 featured Rhubarb Flower
Carnival of the Green # 130! featured I believe...

If any of these topics interests you, head over to the carnival and read lots of great articles on the same subject. And if you're a blogger yourself, you should consider submitting your best posts to the relevant carnival.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Sunday Funnies

Penn and Teller want to know just how far people will go to sort their rubbish for recycling, so they invent some new coloured bins and spurious ways to sort trash. OK, they're poking fun at good people who are willing to make an effort to do something for the environment, which isn't cool. But they're right that we should all be wary of "greenwashing" from local government just as much as from retail businesses.

And as I've said before - if you recycle a lot, you should think about consuming less instead. Perhaps the household in your street who never puts out any plastic bottles for recycling aren't buying lots of stuff in plastic bottles in the first place, which would be much better.

Cartoon from Throbgoblins. Click on the panel to read the whole strip.

Throbgoblins cartoon panel

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Freecycle Challenge

June's challenge is to join your local Freecycle group. When you join Freecycle, you join a mailing list. You'll get lots of emails each day but you don't have to read them so don't worry. The subject lines will say things like:
OFFERED: fridge-freezer, Chorlton
If you want a free fridge freezer and you can get to Chorlton, you can reply to the email and ask for the item. If the person offering the fridge freezer gets lots of replies, they will choose who to offer it to (it's up to them how to choose - first-come first-served, pick a reply out of a hat, anything they like). You could end up with a free fridge freezer, or all kinds of other weird and wonderful items.

It's nice to use it the other way as well. If you have a load of old books you want to declutter, a piece of furniture perhaps or an old lawnmower, you can offer it on Freecycle and somebody is sure to come and take it away. Saves you the trouble of going to the dump or the charity shop yourself.

Finally you can post WANTED ads. It's bad form to ask if anyone has a Porsche Cayenne they don't want with at least six months road tax and a full MOT. But if you want an old hose pipe, some paving slabs or a cat carrier - the sort of thing people might have knocking about unwanted - it doesn't hurt to ask. Just today I gave someone two pumpkin plants because hers had been eaten by slugs. I deliberately sowed too many as an insurance policy against that sort of disaster, so I was happy to share.

Here's a random selection of items offered in my local Freecycle group today:
  • Bath taps
  • Ikea TV Stand & matching Hi-fi stand
  • large rectangular dining table & 4 chairs
  • 3 Dimplex Radiators
  • 120 concrete garden-wall bricks, reconstituted sort
  • toddler garden swings &rabbit hutch
  • dozens of Bone china tea-plates
It's very easy to find your local Freecycle group. Just visit the Freecycle web site and type your location into the search panel in the middle of the screen. You need to have an email address, and a Yahoo account, but this is free and it's very quick and easy to sign-up. Once you've joined, read the rules of the group (how many times a week you can post WANTED requests, whether it's allowable to offer pets, things like that), and you can get started.

If you don't want to join Freecycle for some reason, or there is no group in your area, there are lots of alternative free recycling groups.

Don't forget to vote in the poll in the right-hand sidebar when you've completed this challenge.

Friday, June 06, 2008

A Taste of Honey

honey combI brought home the empty hive from the colony that died. Mice got in during the winter and did a lot of damage, and the colony never recovered. It's very sad, but the hive had three frames of capped honey in it. That's honey that is finished and the bees have covered the cells with a cap of beeswax to store it. So I thought I could extract that at home and get one or two jars of honey to use.

I de-capped the cells with a dessert spoon and strained the honey through a muslin-lined funnel. The golden clear honey ran into a dish. It smelled fantastic. I dipped my finger to taste it. The first taste was sweet and complex, delicious home-produced honey. And then another taste came through - the unmistakable taste of mouse pee. I had to drink a pint of orange juice to get the taste out of my mouth.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Compost Challenge Results

Compost challenge pie chartIn May I challenged Bean Sprouts readers to take up composting. 195 people voted in the poll and the results were as follows:
  • I've started a compost heap! 28 votes (14%)
  • I already had a compost heap! 142 votes (72%)
  • I don't want a compost heap! 2 votes (1%)
  • I can't have a compost heap! 23 votes (11%)

If you're interested in composting but just can't find a method that's right for you, check out Top Ten Compost Systems. And if you're a nervous newcomer to the world of composting, you might find Compost by Ken Thompson a very reassuring read.

A new challenge for June will be coming soon.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Farms Relieve Stress

Cow and bullI was interested to read about a study showing that visiting a farm relieves stress and tiredness. According to the BBC:
Scientists said they found that after spending a few hours on a farm, 95% of those analysed were less tired, 91% less tense and 55% felt revitalised.
It went on to say:
Anger and hostility levels decreased for 70% of visitors, feelings of confusion and depression both decreased for 80% of visitors, vigour increased for 55% of visitors, tension and anxiety levels decreased for 91% and nearly all visitors - 97% - said they felt a reduction in fatigue.
Those figures are remarkable, but somehow not surprising. It passes the "reality check": visiting farms and rural locations has the same effect on me. How about you?

I have just finished reading A Good Life, a biography of John Seymour, the father of the self-sufficiency movement. I don't think he'd have been surprised by this research either:
To John all of the foundation of human happiness was based on the deep seated urge and need for human beings to be closely associated with the land that they came from. Not the country but the very earth itself beneath their feet. Every form of human joy in one way or another swelled from this single point of view.
I do wonder how to reconcile the amazing calming and restorative powers of nature with the terribly high suicide rate amongst farmers - about twice the rate of other workers. Perhaps it just underlines the desperate situation British farmers are in.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Learning to Knit

Sam knittingSam is learning to knit. He wanted to knit a teddy bear for Eleanor, but I've persuaded him to start with squares. I'll sew them up into a bean bag when he's made two of them. He's trying very hard and making great progress. I do a couple of rows when he's not looking so it grows a bit faster for him. It's hard to be patient when you're six.

Carnival Round-Up

This week, Bean Sprouts has been featured in the following blog carnivals:

A Gardening Carnival featured Hug Your Allotment Chairperson
The Carnival of Recipes featured Bean Sprouts' most popular article so far, How to Make Greek Yogurt
Green It! Carnival! featured Broody Hen
Veg Head Carnival featured Roasted Vegetables and Goats' Cheese Pasta

A blog carnival is like a magazine, it's a collection of blog articles on a particular topic. If you're interested in any of those topics, why not go and read the other articles in the blog carnival? And if you're a blogger, why not submit your best articles to a relevant blog carnival?

Monday, June 02, 2008

Recycle Week

Big Ben sculptureToday is the first day of Recycle Week. I learned this yesterday, from an article on the BBC website about a sculpture made of empty coke cans. It's organised by Wrap, who are behind the excellent Recycle Now website. But there doesn't seem to be a webpage for the Recycle Week campaign, and I can't find out anything else about it. What is happening, apart from this sculpture? Are there any events people can go to? What exactly are they doing to encourage people to recycle more? It all seems a bit inept - a depressingly familiar story.

If I find out anything else about it I'll let you know. If you know anything, please drop me a line.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Sunday Funnies

Throbgoblins cartoon panelThis week's cartoon from Marc Roberts (click on the panel to view the full strip) proves that the truth is stranger than fiction. The cartoon was posted on the Throbgoblins website a few days before a news item appeared on the BBC website about a man who wants to build 60 million giant artificial trees to soak up all the world's carbon. He thinks this is quite possible because:
we make 55 million cars a year, so if we really wanted to we could.
I loved this bit:
The towers would be about 50ft high and 8ft in diameter, and use a special type of plastic to absorb the CO2.
And plastic is made of.....?

And this is the best bit of all:
The gas would then be either liquefied under pressure and pumped underground or turned into a mineral.
So he wants to turn it back into oil, basically. And what do we do with oil? I guess we could dig it up again and burn it again. That woudl be OK, right? Because we could use the 60 million giant artificial trees to just catch it and put it back underground again. There couldn't be any problem with that, could there?

It reminds me of the Homer Simpson quote:
Lisa! In this house, we obey the laws of thermodynamics!

I'd like to leave him alone in a room with Cantankerous Frank for a while. He sounds like he needs a lesson from the clue-stick.

Marc has been producing cartoons prolifically lately and it will take me a little while to catch up with him. Visit his website, Throbgoblins, to read all the latest strips.