Sunday, October 25, 2009

Putting the Bees to Bed

Today Dad and I went and visited all 11 of our hives. At the height of the summer we had 15. A couple were very weak splits and didn't make it or were united back. But luckily our current 11 all seem to be doing really well! I was so surprised by how big the populations still are and how much stores they have. Luckily October has been very mild so far. But today we went and put the girls to bed - I will miss them so much this winter! We fed them some sugar syrup and have just about closed them up. I'm sure we'll go and visit again soon but our summer jobs are over now and soon it will be too cold for them to even venture out. So onto the winter and building endless frames etc!

Last weekend we spent forever making up our own sugar syrup. It was meant to come out as fondant, and this required a very long and tiring process. When I went into the kitchen it smelled like Dad was making chutney, but it turns out he had added vinegar to the sugar mixture to "invert" the sugars. I haven't researched this yet but it's something to do with unlocking fructose from the sucrose or something. After that came a lot of heating it to an exact temperature, cooling it down to an exact temperature, and then whisking it until the electric mixer died! After that we put it in bottles ready to feed the bees. It isn't quite thick enough to be called fondant but it's so much thicker than simply boiling up sugar and some water!

After tasting my Grandpa's delicious tomatoes I harvested all ours, even the green ones. I put them in the airing cupboard to ripen - this must have been ages ago now - and forgot about them. Then when we were doing more de-cluttering yesterday we found all these ripe tomatoes in the cupboard! Unfortunately the Brandywines were a bit mushy but the Roma were divine...but even the mushy ones wills be great in my Mum's tomato sauce!

Mum's tomato sauce

Mum used to live in Italy. She's always telling us stories about her old landlady who hid Italian Jews in her attic during the war, strange past Italian boyfriends who had nose jobs, ridiculous superstitions about odd numbers of nuns...English people just don't seem to know how to cook Italian food, putting cream in their carbonara and god knows what in their tomato sauce. Don't do it! This sauce is only 5 ingredients and it really doesn't need anything else! Use it on pizza, with meatballs, on pasta, with chickpea croquettes...anything. Makes 1 quantity.

1 x tin plum tomatoes (whole, not chopped)
glug of olive oil
pinch of salt
good grind of pepper
a clove of garlic, crushed
and you can add a couple of basil leaves or a pinch of dried oregano or marjoram if you like ^^

Heat the oil in a pan. Fry the garlic for a minute or two. Add the tomatoes. Break them up a bit with a spatula. Cook until it starts to thicken slightly, perhaps for about 20 minutes. It will smell wonderful. Add the seasonings if you want them. Savour.

Thanks everyone for all your comments recently! I'm really interested to hear what you all think about the plastics - maybe one of us will come up with a cunning plan and save the world! See you soon ^^

Saturday, October 10, 2009


Recently we've started having a huge clear-out. We've been living knee-deep in pointless clutter for ages and it was starting to get us all down, so we are taking steps!

We've tidied up and rearranged the garden a bit, and have got rid of lots of the pots we don't use. Inside the house I'm in the process of going through all my textiles and crafts items and chucking out the stuff that I don't use any more. We're getting rid of a few books here and there and I'm slowly redoing my bedroom too (hopefully going to be using reclaimed timber furniture!). But until now I have never really realised just how dependent we are on plastics.

Everything we use is plastic. I always thought I was quite careful about avoiding over-packaged goods but everything we eat and buy comes in plastic, from crisps and oven chips to health foods and fruit and veg. Even the stuff packaged in metal, glass or plastic is still printed in a plastic-dependent process or stuck together with plastic tape. I've been rifling through plastic beads, acrylic yarns, nylon pipecleaners and even the bags I use to store them or throw them away in are plastic.

We have always reused our plastic shopping bags and use "bags for life" but even then there is always the odd occasion when you've forgotten a bag and so have to use a new one from the shop. We buy a lot of stuff from the co-op in the High Street, and they use only potato-starch biodegradable bags, but is it really better to use food crops for plastics? I worked at the nursery on Thursday when I had a day off from college and Jim showed me some new very expensive pots he was trialing. He says he wants to give up plastic pots, and these ones were made from rice. He insisted they were made from by-products such as husks etc. but I'm still sceptical: one of these days, we will have a food crisis, and if there's no rice, he won't be able to buy any rice by-product pots either.

The fact is that we are utterly dependent on plastics. The things we use that are not made of plastic are more than likely produced in industrial conditions, and guess what - those industrial conditions rely on plastics. Everything from our cosy jumpers to kagouls and wellies, windows, furniture, and our food packaging is made from plastic. It's pretty scary to wonder what if we woke up tomorrow and all the plastics had gone or had never been invented. We wouldn't have anything.

But I'm also sceptical about the alternatives. If we justs topped using plastics, what would happen to all those plastic goods that are already in existence? They'd either be incinerated (can we really capture all those harmful gases?) or put to landfill. I like using natural fibres in my textiles work, but would it really be better to rely on wool for our clothing, house insultaion, etc? And could we really put precious land down to fibre plants without struggling to produce enough food, and would many of them grow without petrochemical fertilisers? Would, for example, rice by-products really be a realistic option in a world without plastic parts for aeroplanes, ships, and machines?

I'm still not sure what I think about all this but I think the best thing we can do is continue to use plastics, just not make so much of them. I think we're in too deep to stop using plastics, and look at all the good things they do for us - medical supplies, for example. I think we just have to reuse and recycle all the plastic we can. So I'll be trying to throw away as little as possible during this big clear out. Someone out there on ebay or Freecycle will have a use for all my junk, and hopefully that will keep it out of landfill.

Sunday, October 4, 2009


Hello everyone! Sorry I haven't blogged for a long time yet again, and I can't believe how much I've missed on my favourite blogs!!! Things seem so buys round here that I haven't had much time for gardening, and we haven't seen our bees for a month! But this week is our catch-up week and thankfully the October weather has been kind to us so far...long may it continue!

Today we went up to see my Grandpa and Grandma and Grandpa gave me a tremendous gift - the first ripe Brandywine tomato from the plant I gave him earlier in the year! It was a whopper and I've cut it up for our supper's first course, along with a couple of Grandpa's other tomatoes (I expect Ailsa Crag - he's always recommending them to me, and Alicante too) and some of ours too: our Alicante, Gardener's Delight and Sungolds. I've had a little nibble and many big flavours on one plate! I love tomatoes! I literally just cut them up and put them on a plate - no salt, no oil or vinegar or herbs - they really don't need it.
^ My Brandywine tomatoes still ripening up

Yesterday we went to the Farnham Food Festival. We didn't stay long because Pabi Bach didn't feel well but I managed to buy some proper baklawa! Baklawa is a Middle Eastern sweet full of delicious things such as pastry, nuts, sugar/honey,'s absolutely delicious and one of my favourite indulgences. I have two other treats that I look forward to and those are greengages (a cousin of the plum) and chestnuts. I literally get a tingly feeling when it's the season for these! I didn't get any greengages to eat this year but I still remember the ones we ate on a beach in Brittany on the only sunny day of summer 2008...and the chestnuts are just beginning to fall now! I went for a weaving lesson with Carol on Wednesday and she has a chestnut tree opposite her drive and they all looked very small and weedy...but hopefully when we go to France around Halloween the French trees will be faring better.

My Style Challenge didn't fare so well in September so to make up for it I'll be making TWO style-related projects this month. I think I'll try making a cosmetic of some description and maybe get going on the cheong-sam dress I've been meaning to make myself for a while...first of all I've just got to persuade my sewing machine to relearn the art of winding bobbins correctly!

We have something like 15 gallons of booze fermenting away now and soon I'll be collecting rosehips to make soothing rosehip syrup with! I've also found that our homemade green tomato chutney has quite a good effect on a sore throat.

Anyway. Supper tonight is our lovely tomatoes followed by my Moroccan chickpea soup with rosemary focaccia and some crispy sauteed potatoes. I leave you with some pictures of how the garden's looking and hope to talk to you all again shortly!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Mega Update!

I don't seem to have blogged in ages, probably due to the fact that there has been loads going on recently, not least my starting at college! I'm studying English Lit and an art course that lets me try everything from painting to pottery to patchwork to photography. So far it's all going really well!

Anyway, here are some of the other things that have been going on lately:

^ Dad and Pops in the canoe, picking blackberries from the canal bank.

^ Poppy suddenly decided that she liked jam, so we made some Blackberry and Apple.

^ Blackberry wine and Blackberry and Apple jam.

^ Apple wine. The key difference between cider and apple wine is that with cider you crush the juice out of the apples and ferment that. With apple wine you crush the apples and soak them in water. Then when the apple flavour has permeated the water, you ferment that.

^ Dad beekeeping.

^ Worker bees eating up some spilled honey.

^ Some of my handspun yarns soaking in hand hot water to set the twist. The grey-brown stuff is my weaving teacher Carole's corriedale fibre from her own sheep! I spun it very slubby and textured, and it's a 2-ply. It came out at about 8 wraps per inch.

^ I knitted my Corriedale handspun into a nice slouchy hat! Here I am with my new hat and some of Mum's clay jewellery that she made me. Sorry for the poor picture quality! I finished the hat on August 31st so I had better think of something else to make for my September Style Challenge!

^ Honey bee on golden rod in the garden yesterday.

^ Brandywine tomatoes fattening up - can't wait to taste these beauties.

^ Today we planted pretty pansies in the garden for winter colour. They're really amazing plants - some that we planted two years ago were still going by last summer. They flowered the whole year except January! The name pansy comes from the French "pensee" which means "thought" (n) here are some very happy thoughts.

^ Pabi Bach digging up and rehoming strawberry runners.

^ My first (and as yet only) Blue Hubbard Squash! I harvested it yesterday and am now allowing the pale underside to cure.
^ Bear's Britches fading flower heads. Mum likes to dry these and have them in a vase. When the seeds are dry they go pinging all over our living room.

^ Apple blossom on the trees. If a fruit tree hasn't set (enough) fruit in the spring, sometimes it will try again in the autumn when the weather cools down again. Luckily we have a few apples to enjoy as well as the lovely blossom.

^ Purple verbena flowers - been going for months! - in front of Mum's pink rose.

^ The garden, with a purple cotinus and golden rod in the foreground.
So that's it. It's well and truly autumn now. Although we still have sunny days the Canada geese fly over our house every morning and evening and I'm already pining for hearty lamb casseroles and savoy cabbage fried with lovely streaky bacon.......shame I'm veggie really!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Style Challenge 2009/2010

I had an idea today that I would set myself a "monthly style challenge" for a whole year. I'm still planning how I'm going to go about this but here is the basic gist of it:
  1. Every month I will make (and finish) an item of clothing/accessory/cosmetic.
  2. It will be made from scratch.*
  3. I will try and use recycled or natural materials wherever possible. I think I'll allow remnants from the fabric shop too - if I don't buy them they might go to landfill.
  4. The things I make must be finished and useable by the end of each month!

*I'll allow myself to use existing clothes but the rule is if it's a top I have to change it into a skirt, i.e. I have to use it to make something else, rather than just decorate it.

I'm pretty excited about this. It might seem a bit of a departure from my usual topics of bees and vegetables but the textile and clothing industry is a huge contributor to all the things I don't like: environmental and human degradation, irresponsible consumerism etc. So if I can make just 12 fashion/style related things this year whilst harming the planet and people as little as possible it can only be a small step in the right direction.

Hopefully it will also push me to learn some new skills! Every time I flip through a fashion magazine I find myself thinking "I could make that" and then I get to my sewing machine and find that actually I can't. And of course money is pretty tight this year so being able to make clothes that actually last for a fraction of the price they'd cost in a shop would be fantastic. So this year I will learn to make clothes etc. and I will go to the ball!

I've decided that my first project will be a hat for winter. It'll count for September as we're already halfway through August. I'll knit it from my weaving teacher Carole's homegrown Corriedale fleece, handspun by me, according to the instructions for the Slouch Hat in Lexi Boeger's "Intertwined". I don't think you can get much more handmade than that.

So wish me luck...I expect that in a month's time I'll really be wishing I'd set myself something easier but oh could be fun ^^.


On Saturday Dad, Pabi Bach and I went blackberry picking. It was gloriously hot weather and luckily in the fields behind our estate there were already plenty of blackberries for the picking.

After just an hour of lazy picking we had 2.5kg of berries. 2kg of this went to wine, and the other 500g went into a blackberry and apple pie, made with some of our own windfall cooking apples too! Despite being diabetic-friendly (i.e. no sugar, even in the pastry) the pie was still deliciously sweet. I can assure you that it looked most impressive when it first came out of the oven but by the time I'd got to it with the camera there wasn't much left!

^ Pabi Bach drinking milk and stirring the wine
^ The foam on top of the wine
^ Pie!
And Sunday's supper was a barbecque, which included some rather delicious vegetable kebabs made with aubergine, mushrooms, red onion, green pepper, red pepper (Jim's* homegrown ones), and our homegrown tomatoes.

*Jim is my boss at the bamboo nursery. Last night he managed to randomly find the blog and all this morning was quoting the things I wrote about him. So I'm going to have to be terribly complimetary about him now, at the expense of The Awful Truth. Apologies. Although he did give me a hydrophobia unknownii to take home today (some kind of ginger, I dunno the name).
PS: I seem to be having some trouble with Blogger at the moment with putting the picutres in nicely, so sorry that all the gaps are a bit wonky. I'm working on making the blog pretty again.

Victory Dance!

We had suspected one of our hives of having foulbrood - this is the colony that we took from the barn wall (see the video blog and is now residing in Dave and Vicki's garden. Last week we opened them up and there seemed to be sunken cell cappings everywhere. When I uncapped them there wasn't any of the brown goo characteristic of American foulbrood but the larvae were dead. There also seemed to be one or two larvae here and there that were lying on the sides of their cells - classic European foulbrood. We didn't know what we had so we called in the Bee Inspector.

Well, I have just got back from the inspection and am over the moon because the hive is HEALTHY! The Inspector gave us the all clear and actually complimented the sheer loveliness of the colony. So they are alright. That's a huge relief becuase I was preparing myself for having to burn them all to death! In fact they are so healthy and happy that they need another box, and they might even be able to collect enough honey to last them the whole winter if the ivy is good this year!

So all our hives are doing pretty OK! We're beginning to wind down now. The entrance blocks have gone in to help ward off wasps (one very weak colony has already been robbed to death between inspections - there seem to be loads of wasps this year) and we're beginning to feed the colonies that are really short on food. Soon we'll be counting and treating for varroa and organising our hives to minimise the possibility of woodpeckers and mice attacking. Then it will be sealing the hives up against the cold and making equipment over the winter!

So yes, I am now off to do my victory dance becuase our bees are the bees knees! (Excuse the cheesiness but I'm so relieved I don't care).

Thursday, August 13, 2009

A New Life

One thing I forgot to post about yesterday was our trip to the bees yesterday afternoon.

This year we've been converting to OSB hives and yesterday we finally made a huge leap forward. We had 2 colonies still in 14x12" nucs and at last they have made the move into OSBs. As they were both big, busy colonies it was about time that we pulled our finger out and moved them!

Becuase the frames the bees were on in the nucs were much bigger than OSB size we cut them down - that way they'd still have some existing brood in their new home (the rest of the frames used to fill up the hive were a mixture of drawn, partially drawn, feed and foundation combs). Cutting them down involves sawing through the wooden side bars and cutting through the comb with a breadknife. Of course this means that you get covered in honey and "larvae juice".

^ The bees clean up some of their comb for us.

The best thing was however, on one of the off-cut pieces of comb there was a worker bee trying to emerge from her cell. I needed to get the comb into the bin bucket but I hated to see her die just when she was about to start life as a full-grown bee! So I very gently pulled back the capping and one of the sides of her cell. She was still caught up in her chrysalis so I had to VERY carefully wiggle that off her too...however eventually she was out and it was amazing! I can't describe what a cool feeling it was! (Perhaps a bit like giving birth, I suppose). Anyway, I put her down on the roof of the hive and she was wonderful. She started walking around immediately but was unsteady on her feet, her legs kept slipping out too wide under her. And she was covered in soft grey velvet...amazing!

Because we have to keep our bees in out-apiaries (away from home) we never really sit and just watch what's going on with the hives - we're always lugging equipment to and from the car and by the time we've finished inspecting I'm hungry, Dad's tired and we want to go home. We never just sit down and watch how the bees behave and how their society works...and as I learn more about Permaculture the more I realise that observing nature at work is the best way to learn about it and how to help it (I've also noticed that forcing myself to really look at things has so helped my creativity - my art and writing are improving so much just because I look at things more. So I have been well and truly won over by this Permaculture well as the rest of them, but this one in particular). Seeing that baby bee take her first few steps was absolutely perhaps I will start taking a folding chair with me so I can just sit and watch!

Amd finally, I have another couple of recipes for you (again, I'm afraid, without a single picture). We seem to have been doing a lot of cooking recently but Dad's Sweet Potato Bread is definitely one of our best inventions to date, and my Moroccan soup never seems to last long.

Dad's Sweet Potato Bread

1 batch of basic bread dough - enough for a nice big loaf (Dad used Jamie Oliver's recipe from "The Naked Chef")
12 oz left over roasted sweet potato chunks (we used mixed sweet potato and squash, cut into chunks and roasted with cumin and black mustard seeds).

It's easy - mix the sweet potato into the basic bread dough. Put into the oven for 20 mins at 225 degrees C. This made a medium-sized loaf and a few rolls for us. The bread browns wonderfully on top and the crumb is the most beautiful sunny orange, with a lovely moist texture. We served it with my Moroccan Soup (see below) and is lovely to mop up the juices of the vegetarian Moroccan tagine with apricots Mum made last night.

My Moroccan Soup
This one started out as a recipe in Good Food magazine but I've adapted it to suit our taste. I usually make double. The lemon juice makes this soup really zingy and special.

1 onion, roughly chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
600ml hot vegetable stock
red pepper - perhaps 2 big shopbought ones, or lots of little ones from the garden ^^
1 tin tomatoes
1 tin chickpeas, drained and rinsed
2 sticks celery (with leaves if home grown!)
1 carrot (optional)
1 - 2 tsps chilli powder
1 - 2 tsps cumin seeds
1 - 2 tsps cayenne pepper / Ras-el-Hanout spice blend / cinnamon
olive oil
juice of 1 lemon

Heat the oil in a heavy casserole dish. Fry off the onion, garlic, celery and carrot if using until starting to soften. Throw in the cumin seeds and fry for another minute or two to toast. Add the peppers and cook for another couple of minutes. Fling in the stock and the tomatoes and cover, leaving to simmer for 20 minutes. Add the chickpeas and stir. Simmer for another 10 to 15 minutes. Break up the tomatoes a bit, and add the spices and a good grind of black pepper too. Taste and season with salt if you think it needs it - I never do. You can serve it up immediately or save for later - 5 minutes before serving, squeeze in the lemon juice and stir, and allow to simmer for a couple more minutes. Serve beautifully hot with a Sweet Potato Bread roll. You can also add the zest of the lemon with the cumin for extra zing.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Best Shades of Purple...

A couple of weekends ago we all went on a walk together to see how the hedgerow fruit was doing. Nothing was quite perfect then, although Dad and I did taste a couple of damsons (small plums) that were close to ripeness. Well, this morning as we were on our way to work we passed the same damson tree and at its feet lay a small puddle of little indigo spheres. When we came back the same way this afternoon there were even more on the ground. So an hour ago we set off with a brewing bucket to go and pick some up!

We started off just picking the ones on the pavement, but soon had all the good ones. Dad went up the drive and asked the owner if it was alright for us to pick the windfalls on their (very long) drive, and they said yes! So in the end we came back with a 23 litre bucket 3/4 full of damsons - and those were just the windfalls we picked in 1/2 an hour!

We're going to put them down to wine. But the best thing is that as we were picking a couple of other people drove past and offered us their fruit - apples and what I think were possibly cherry plums! So there is more picking to be done! (And I think that after our allotment campaign has been successful I may start another one for a community allotment/forest hopefully there will be bountiful harvests well into the future!).

My next shade of purple is the purple of the cardoon flower. The cardoon is my Mum's pride and joy. It's a member of the artichoke family and in Italy they eat the blanched stems (we don't bother - Mum tried them when she lived there and says they are nothing to write home about). So we grow it purely because Mum likes it! Dad is always insulting it, though I can't think why as it's a terrific bee plant and the flowers when they arrive are truly magnificent. We're planning to enter some stuff in our beekeeping association's Honey Show this year. Dad tells me that there is a photographic category this year, so I've been trying to get some good snaps on bees on this unusual flower. Here are some of the not-so-good ones (I'm keeping the best ones under my hat for now...).

And to conclude, it's not a shade of purple but here is a pic of the fields behind our village when I went on a walk there yesterday afternoon.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Summer Nibbles

Here's a recipe which my Mum made up last week - I've been making it ever since to use up our glut of cucumbers!

1 cucumber (makes quite a bit)
1/2 lemon
a couple of good pinches cayenne pepper or ground black pepper
1 pinch salt (optional)

Cut the cucumber into thin rings and arrange in layers in a serving bowl.

Squeeze the juice of half a lemon over the cucumber (or use a whole lemon if you like things really zingy).

Sprinkle over the cayenne or black pepper and a pinch of salt if using.


We also do the same with thinly-sliced onion: slice 1 onion, put in a serving bowl, add lemon juice and a pinch of cayenne pepper. However you may need more lemon juice as it needs to cover the onion to sort of cook it. Prepare it in advance and it will be even better. Great with curries!