Monday, March 30, 2009

White House Veg Garden

Michelle Obama has started a vegetable patch in the White House gardens with the help of local school children.

It's nice to see high-profile figures taking steps towards a lower-impact lifestyle. Even if it's only baby steps, at least it's a start, and just think how many people will be inspired to start their own veg gardens and find out more about growing your own!

Sadly the newsreader seems intent upon telling people that nasturtiums and marigolds are inedible. I'm not sure I'd eat the African marigolds that we grow, but calendula is meant to be very good; I think I read somewhere that Shakespeare said that eating it makes you happy, and apparently my great-granny used to pickle nasturtium seeds to use instead of capers. Nasturtium leaves and flowers are edible and I use them in my salads during the summer.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

General Update

We have made some mead. We didn't use our own honey, as there isn't terribly much of it, so instead we bought some cheap summer honey from Lidl and used that. The mead is flavoured with some Twinings Raspberry, Strawberry and Loganberry tea - you can use all sorts of things to flavour mead, and in one of my favourite books, one about herbs, it mentions a bark container found in a Danish bog that had mead residue in it, from which scientists could establish that the mead had been flavoured with about 20 different things!

It is fermenting away furiously, is currently pretty cloudy and very frothy on top.

The garden is very spring like and we have eaten the first of the kale that we planted last year, as well as salads. Since the last post we have had one or two other salads. I really enjoy harvesting things from the garden, so I tend to go a bit overboard when Mum asks me to pop out to get a lettuce! The last salad I made contained:
  • Little Gem lettuce
  • Sugar Loaf chicory
    Lamb's lettuce
  • Baby perpetual spinach leaves
  • Lemon Balm
  • Marjoram
  • Fennel
  • Chives
  • Parsley
  • Mint
    Wallflower petals
  • Pansy flowers
  • Young hawthorn leaves

all of which were picked from the garden!

Later on I hope to be including beetroot, young chard leaves (if the family can stand them), other lettuce varieties, nasturtium leaves, flowers and seeds, Lady's Mantle, young oak leaves, rose petals, tomatoes, onions, spring onions, and who knows what else.

I recently ordered a book from the library - "The Forest Garden" by Robert Hart, who pioneered forest gardening. It's a very thin little booklet, only about twenty pages or so, but it was really interesting to read about the first forest garden - even though forest gardening has moved on a bit since Hart made his, I think it's still good to get a sense of the evolution of an idea and go back to basics to really understand the underlying philosophy. One of the things that really struck me in the book is what he refers to as "Sallets" (salads to you and me). From what he says in the book is sounds as if Hart lived on a diet of entirely raw foods, which I can't say appeals to me, but as I am the official Provider of Salads I was interested in what he put in his - low maintenance herbs such as Good King Henry, for example, which we don't tend to eat nowadays, but which are highly nutritious and easy to grow.

I also have my eye on some other unusual plants, for this year or subsequent years. One of these is the "strawbini" as they call it on the Victoriana Nursery website (, Blitum capitatum, Chenepodium capitatum. This is a spinach-like plant that also produces red berries, which are meant to taste pretty good. It contains some odd stuff, that can cause health problems if you eat too much of it, but as this is exactly the same as spinach, comfrey, beans and pretty much any other veg you can think of, I'm not at all put off by this. As we don't have a huge amount of room to grow things in, plants that produce two crops in the space of one appeal to me!

We were meant to do our Spring Inspection today, but it is much too cold. We went down to one of our apiaries however to look at the outside of the hives, and top up the feed we're giving the nuc if necessary. A new beekeeper who Dad is mentoring came with us - a nice bloke, though he seemed a bit daunted! There certainly is a fair bit to get your head round when you start beekeeping, but I think the best thing is to get lots of help from more experienced beekeepers and just get down and do it.

The bees were not coming out at all, except for 5 minutes when the sun came out. Unfortunately what was our strongest hive last year looks barely there - if there are any bees, there are not very many. I doubt this is due to starvation, as we've been feeding them throughout the winter, or because of the weather (it was a pretty good winter this year - cold and rather dry, which the bees can cope with. It's wet weather that's really bad for them). I think varroa may have played a part in it - we treated them towards the end of last year, but when looking at the varroa counting board a while ago, varroa numbers were pretty bad. Oh well. We'll just have to be really vigilant this year, and do some more varroa trapping techniques this year.

Luckily, we've come through the two winters we've had bees pretty well. Dad's mentor had 50% losses this year - we lost one hive to starvation in the summer and perhaps one hive this year. I think ti's because we don't leave them alone in the winter like you're meant to - we can't keep away and we're always topping up their feed and generally being overprotective, although I don't doubt that there's some beginners' luck in there too.

Dad and I recently tried tapping one of the enormous ash trees that grow in our back garden - I carved a funnel type piece of wood, we drilled a hole in the tree and slid the funnel in. Nothing happened! No sap at all! It was supposed to be about the right time of year for tapping - when the sap's rising and the leaves haven't yet come out - but it hasn't worked at all! I suppose ash might have been a bit of an odd choice of tree - birch or a maple would probably have been better - but ash is edible, if bitter, and the trees are the perfect size and strength to withstand a bit of tapping. Oh well, it'll be back to the drawing board next spring! (Though I do plan to make some ash key pickle this year, so the trees won't be completely redundant for the rest of the year!).

Peak oil is an issue that interests me, i.e. how, in the future, am I going to be able to take foreign holidays in an eco-friendly way and totally without oil?! One oil-derived product that I use pretty frequently is acrylic paint, and recently I've been wondering what I'm going to do when there is no acrylic paint left. So today I have been trying out natural paints!

They're really easy to make and as you can see from the photos, make pretty nice colours! I found a page about it here :( which mentions using Gum Arabic - as I don't have any of that however I tried using normal cooking oil. It worked a treat! I just mixed some tiny amounts of turmeric, chilli powder and ash into the oil and this is how they turned out!

The chilli powder paint in particular had little grains all over it, but after leaving it to dry for a bit I was able to just brush these off. The oil did soak through the page a bit, but not nearly as much as I'd thought it would, and dries off in not too long a time. You can also use other pigments such as charcoal, ground up brick, and talcum powder to make other colours. As I do more of this I'll be experimenting with different pigments, mixing colours, using different oils and what effects water, salt and vinegar have, etc.

I have sown a first succession of beetroot today, directly in the ground, under cover of our polytunnel. The next things to plant, in April, will be sunflowers, beans, sweetcorn, squashes, cucumbers, courgettes, loofas...the autumn-ripening summer things will be going in next! The stuff I've started off already is looking pretty good, though I'm slightly concerned that the celery hasn't germinated yet!

I'm planning to plant a Three Sisters bed this year, in the front garden, as Carol Klein did on her series Grow Your Own Veg a while back. This system was used, apparently, by the Iriquois, and sees corn, beans and squashes growing together in a symbiotic relationship: the corn supports the beans, the beans put nitrogen in the soil, and the squashes block out all the weeds.

My other big project this year is to turn a little corner of garden into a miniature forest garden! It's south-west facing, sunny, and VERY poor soil - in fact it's probably more builder's rubble than soil! We already have a crab apple tree, violets, ox-eye daisies and a lavender bush there, which we don't want to get rid of, but around these I will be planting perennial and self-seeding edible and medicinal plants, on several layers. There isn't very much room, so I'll be omitting the shrub layer for one thing, and choosing plants that are easy to grow but not too vigorous. I'll grow a climbing fruit bush/cane/creeper up the wall, and then I plan to grow beans up the trunk of the crab apple tree - the tree will provide them all the support for two or three plants, but as the beans are annuals they won't be there long enough to strangle the tree.

The first thing I need to work on is improving the soil a bit, without digging up the things we want to keep. This calls for a small amount of digging, and a lot of mulching. Eventually I want to operate a no-dig policy in the garden anyway, so this could be the perfect little corner to experiment on: just how much can I improve the appalling soil with minimal digging?

Monday, March 23, 2009

The First Salad Of The Year

Today Dad will be eating the first salad of the year, and better yet, it's 95% homegrown!

The salad consists of Little Gem lettuce (one lettuce, small/medium sized), a handful of Lambs' Lettuce and 2 leaves of Sugar Loaf chicory, all of which have overwintered under the polytunnel, as well as some sweet pepper (shop bought I'm afraid), a baby beetroot (one of last year's disasters - a year in the ground and it is still smaller than a golf ball), and for edible decoration some wallflower petals and a viola flower.

It's when we start eating stuff from the garden that it really feels like summer isn't that far around the corner.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Basic Bread/Pizza Dough

This mixture makes 2 small loaves or one big schiacciata. It also makes 2 big pizzas. When I'm making bread or schiacciata I tend to mix strong white bread flour and wholemeals flours together. I stick to unadulterated strong white bread flour for pizza.

700g flour (for bread 500g white and 200g wholemeal)
pinch of good salt (I like the salt flakes)
2 sachets of easyblend yeast
3 generous tablespoons of olive oil
220ml cold water
220ml boiling water

Mix the dry ingredients together. Make a well in the middle and add the oil. Mix together the boiling and cold water and add to the mixture. Mix it with a hand mixer with dough hook attachments if you have it. Then pummel it by hand until it feels stretchy.

Bread -If you're making bread, line 2 one-pound bread tins with baking parchment and put half the dough in each tin. I put them on the gas stove to rise - this works very well. When the loaves have risen well above the top of the loaf tins, put them in a hot oven (about 240 degrees c.) for 30 minutes. Turn them out on a rack to cool.

Schiacciata - If you're making schiacciata, line a roasting tin with baking parchment, roll out the dough to fit the tin and put it in. Leave it to rise. Then poke it all over with your finger. Pour a mixture of olive oil, lemon juice, salt flakes, chopped thyme and finely chopped garlic over it - if there isn't enough mixture to go in all the finger holes, top up with olive oil..... (you can never have enough olive oil). Bake in a hot oven for about 20 minutes. Take it out carefully and cool it on a rack.

Pizza - If you're making pizza, leave the mixed dough in the bowl to rise. Then knock it down and divide it in half. Take 2 baking sheets and put baking parchment on them. Next roll out dough - lay each half on its baking sheet. Turn over the edges to make a pleasing shape and to make it fit on the baking sheet. Spread each pizza sparingly with a tomato sauce (see below) and add topping and cheese of your choice. Drizzle the top with olive oil and put on the top shelf of a hot oven for about 12 - 15 minutes.

Tomato Sauce - 2 tins of tomatoes, olive oil, squashed garlic clove, salt and teaspoon of dried oregano. Bring this to the boil then let it simmer until it reduces and becomes a sauce. If you like, you can squoosh it with a potato masher (and remove the garlic clove).

Bee Plants

Today Dad and I cleared up a load of frames, and took some clean supers to our hives. The bees aren't filling them up yet; instead we put them on top of the coverboard. This means that the bees can't get to them, but they're already on site and by the time the bees get into them they should already smell like home.

The bees at our second out-apiary were really busy - they totally ignored us and bees with HUGE pollen sacks were coming in faster than I could count them. The nuc at the association out-apiary was busy too. What was our strongest hive last year however seemed to be going a bit slower - we had a quick look when we checked their pollen patty and couldn't see many bees. They may have had a hard winter. However, they were still collecting, so hopefully they'll build up quickly.

There are lots of bee plants in pollen now. We've seen flurescent orange and creamy white crocus pollen, pale yellow hazel, and now some brighter yellow. The gorse is in flower, as are the pussy willow and blackthorn, and I've seen ornamental cherries in bloom too. There should be lots of tree pollens coming out now. All in all, the season is under way! Our spring inspection will take place in 2 weeks, weather permitting.

And now, I leave you with pictures of our front garden, which contains a mixture of edibles and ornamentals.

Primroses and something purple - apparently primroses make a good wine.

Wallflower buds - edible flowers, I believe. Apparently lots of people dig up wallflowers after the first year and replace them with new plants. Our plants are looking a bit leggy, so we have tied them up, but apart from that replacing them seems mad to me - this is their second year and they're already starting to flower.

Currant bush coming into leaf!

Pansies - edible. The name comes from the French pensee, which means thought. These are also in their second year - I think I put these in in December 2007. They flower for ages and clearly they can survive the winter and live to flower again!

The first tiny pink forget-me-not flowers (not edible, as far as I know). I can't wait for them to be in full bloom.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Gorse Flower Wine

Today I planted first sowings of peas, carrots, celeriac and sunflowers.

Dad and I went to a piece of MOD land near us where people often walk their dogs etc. and a lot of gorse grows, although to be fair gorse grows pretty much everywhere around here!

Today we were after the flowers, which we are using to make wine. I'm using a recipe from a book called Wines, Beers and Spirits by Maurice Hanssen and Jacqueline Dineen (an old book of my Grandad's). Basically you simmer 1/2 a gallon of gorse flowers with 1 gallon of water for 15 minutes. Then you add 3lbs of sugar, a sliced orange and a sliced lemon as the mixture cools. Then - and this is the weird bit - you float the yeast on a lump of toast on top of the wine! Presumably this is so that when the bread breaks down you get the sugars and yeast...though I really don't know. I've never come across this before!

Checking on it after a night out, I found that the bread had swollen up...

Gorse is of course very prickly but providing you have some sturdy gloves on you should be OK. I wore some plain leather gloves today and didn't get prickled once. The flowers are pretty easy to pick and come off in clumps of two or three. It took Dad and I perhaps 1/2 an hour to pick a little over 1/2 a gallon.

The flowers were realeasing puffs of pollen as we picked them - there were lots of insects buzzing around and it turns out that gorse is a good bee plant for pollen, so it is very useful for early spring, though not so much for nectar. I think it flowers for a long time too, although bees prefer other things and move on to other sources as soon as possible, according to F N Howes!

When picked the flowers smelled faintly fruity - like lemon or even mango. However, when we started simmering them in the water, they released a wonderfully powerful lemony aroma - absolutely beautiful!

Yesterday and today I have been doing a little research on Permaculture and forest gardening - there are a wealth of resources on the net and lots of good videos on youtube too. Below are some links.

Permaculture started out as Permanent Agriculture - from my little research, it seems to me that it is all about imitating nature by design in order to produce food that doesn't take much maintenance but equally is sustainable and requires no pesticides etc, although apparently it can be applied to other areas of life too.

Forest gardens are one edible ecosystem that adheres to these principles. The idea is that a natural woodland has no waste products - the soil is fertile, biodiversity is high, the way that different plants and animals work complements each other, and the woodland pretty much takes care of itself. It's also what our land naturally wants to be. By imitating natural woodland, we can grow edible plants. According to the video I mentioned yesterday, growing in this way can porduce double the amount of food as traditional arable farming, with minimal work.

One aspect of forest gardening that particularly attracts me to it is the concept of the seven layers: the canopy of tall trees that need light; the next layer of shorter trees that can tolerate more shade; a shrub layer; a herbaceous layer; ground cover layer; rhizosphere (root layer) and a vertical layer of climbing plants. It sounds to me as if this would allow you to make the most of limited space and grow a huge variety of foods. Companion planting and attracting beneficial animals is also a large part of forest gardening, both of which are concepts which I already try to use in my traditional vegetable garden.

The only problem - well, not really a problem, but something that would slow a lot of people down even if they were really interested in forest gardening and permaculture - is that it requires a lot of planning and designing. Permaculturists take a long time - sometimes even years - to observe how the current ecosystem works, where the prevailing winds come from, and even to let natural regeneration occur. So planting a garden like this takes quite a lot of work at the planning stage - I need to find out more before I take the plunge!

Web links: - Permaculture: A Beginner's Guide - Agroforestry Research Trust - Permaculture Association (Britain)

Videos on You Tube:

There are lots more besides these links - go have a look!

Friday, March 13, 2009

A New Way Of Doing Things

This is a video I found on the internet today; originally broadcast by the BBC, I found it on Google Video. It lasts about 45 minutes and is really interesting - it's an absolute must-see! It investigates alternative ways of producing food - probably the only ways we will have in the near future due to climate change and peak oil. I'm so glad I found this - it sums up the whole reason why I like to produce my own food!

Really refreshing and informative, this video uses some frightening facts but also has plenty to inspire. The Permaculture and forest gardening part really interested me. Watch it and be inspired to dig for survival!

Beekeeping Plans 2009

This is what Flo and I are going to try this season.
I've been reading up on queen rearing and this a first attempt at a scheduled plan.
We need:
1. one strong donor colony.
2. one queen raising nuc
3. spare frames of foundation.
4. one floor pollen trap. We need this on April 4th.
5. Q-cups or "CupKit". We need this on April 25th.
6. eight mating nucs. We need these on May 16th.

Saturday March 21:
In all colonies except the donor colony:
1. Fit a 1 inch strip of drone foundation at the base of what will become the drone trapping frame later in the season.
This should encourage lots of drones to be laid.
Wait 2 weeks
Saturday April 4:
1. Make sure there are plenty of drones laid in the apiary.
2. Fit a pollen trap on the donor colony.
Wait 2 weeks - The drones have to mature to six weeks old to be fertile.
- Collect pollen each week or more often.
Saturday April 18:
In the donor colony:
1. Put a frame of foundation and cups in a Queen proof cage. Preferably use a "CupKit".
2. Spray the Q-cups with syrup and/or pre-condition with a wax film.
3. Mark this frame with a Gold Pin.
4. Place on the edge of the brood so it will be “prepared by the worker bees.
Wait 7 days
- Collect pollen.
Saturday April 25:
In the donor colony:
1. Move the gold frame to the edge of the brood box. Well away from the brood and Queen.
5. Confine one frame of young brood in the Queen proof frame.
6. Mark this frame with a Blue Pin.
8. Feed syrup.
Wait 10 days
- Collect pollen.
Wednesday May 6:
The brood on the blue frame is at least 10 days old.
In the donor colony:
1. Remove the pollen trap. We have been collecting pollen for 4 weeks and 3 days.
2. Confine the Queen on the Gold frame.
3. Put the Gold frame centrally in the brood nest.
4. Put the Blue frame on the edge of the brood.
5. Feed syrup and pollen.
Wait 4 days
Saturday May 9:
The brood on the blue frame is at least 14 days old. It will not be used for emergency Queen cells.
It will all be capped so it requires no nurse feeding. It will produce extra nurse bees in ten days.
If the Queen has laid in the cups then:
1. Put the Queen to one side in a box.
2. Make up a queen raising nuc with _lots_ of young nurse bees.
i.e. shake once over the donor colony, twice over the queen raising nuc.
3. Fit 2 frames of Honey & Pollen in the queen raising nuc.
4. Fit the Blue frame in the queen raising nuc.
5. Fit 9 Q-cups in a frame and place in the queen raising nuc.
6. Feed syrup and pollen.
7. Close the queen raising nuc and site some yard away from the donor colony.
In the donor colony:
8. Release the queen.
9. Feed syrup.
Wait 7 days
Saturday May 16:
The brood on the blue frame is at least 21 days old. Most of it will have emerged.
1. Look in the queen raising nuc; count the sealed Q-cells.
2. Make up the mating nucs. You may need 8!
3. Put one sealed Q-cell in each mating nuc.
4. Keep one Q-cell in the queen raising nuc.
4. Shake all the queen raising nuc bees off their frames and spray with syrup.
5. Put a cup full of bees in each mating nuc.
6. The remaining bees go back in the queen raising nuc.
7. Feed the mating nucs and the queen raising nuc with syrup and pollen.
8. Put the mating nucs where the queens need to be for mating.
i.e. where the drones are.
Wait 3 weeks.
Saturday June 6:
1. Look for eggs in the mating hives.
2. If there are eggs then the Queen is laying.
3. Plan how to use these 9 newly mated Queens!

Yarns, Planting & Faded Flowers

My mixed fibres yarn (bamboo, nylon, wool, silk, banana...) has spun up really well. I began by carding the silk waste, banana fibre etc. to make them spinable, then carded all the different fibres together to blend them. I then carded these rolags together to blend the fibres even more, but left some distinct little pockets of colour. Here are the finished rolags.

I then simply spun these rolags and plied off into a 2ply yarn. The finished yarn is seen here with the other yarns I've been spinning recently; L to R they are: 75% merino, 25 % silk chunky 2ply; 50% silk cap plied with 50% silk waste; mixed wool and suri alpaca worsted single; the finished yarn (bamboo, banana, nylon, wool, silk); single spun from a silk cap; wool/banana mix, spun from a rolag carded by my teacher Carol.

The greenhouse is already doing its job and is always several degrees warmer than outside - on one sunny day it even reached 30 C! At the moment we have a trestle table in there where we put our seed trays. This week I have sown celery and our first successions of parnsips and mixed lettuces.

My okra seedlings are still inside however, and are looking nice and healthy. Only 2 out of 3 ca
me up but there is still time for me to resow the other one.

And finally, here are some pictures of a faded bunch of flowers - I'm forming an idea for some artwork based on these.

Friday, March 6, 2009

My Friend Sheila's Rasher Pudding

My friend Sheila is from an old Hampshire family - not in-comers like us! She has this recipe for "Rasher Pudding" (you have to pronouce it "raaasher puddn" to be authentic). I have subsequently found versions of it on the web and in my precious book "The Cookery of England" by Elizabeth Ayrton. Ayrton describes is as "a substantial but cheap dish for the servants of the hunt and their children." It seems to be a dish from Hampshire and Dorset. It isn't slimming!

- For the suet pastry:-
250g self raising flour,
pinch of salt
1 tspn lemon zest
125g suet
6-8 tblspns water - with a squeeze of lemon juice

Make it into a dough and then rest it in the fridge for about 20 minutes.
Roll out the pastry on a floured surface
Sprinkle it generously with bacon scraps and chopped onion (I prefer the onion lightly fried first, it makes the flavour sweeter)
Roll it up and season it

Cooking it is a bit of trial and error - Sheila says you can wrap it in foil and bake it, or the traditional way would be to steam it over boiling water for about an hour. Anything you can steam, you can usually microwave. The most successful combination I have tried is to cover it in clingfilm and cook in the microwave (I did it on level 2 for 7 minutes) then finish it off in the oven (200 degrees c. for about 20 minutes).

Comfort Food.

Tomato Varieties and Ramblings

After growing 2 rather flavourless varieties of tomato last year (Marmande* and Moneymaker) this year I am going for full-on flavourful fruit. I have chosen 3 varieties - Sungold, which I see recommended everywhere; Alicante, which my Grandpa likes very much; and Brandywine, a heritage variety that apparently puts flavour before profit.
(*The French are very keen on Marmande, but I found it to be a bit watery for my taste! I think I remember Nigel Slater recommending it, which is usually to be taken seriously, although having read one of his books recently and seen that he thinks Bagna Cauda** is nice to eat, I have gone off him rather.)
(**Italian. Anchovies boiled down to slop. You are supposed to stick crudites in it. The black sheep of an otherwise heavenly cuisine in my view. To be avoided!)
Anyway, where was I..?
I have started them off pretty early this year - mid February - so that they have a long growing season with plenty of time to ripen.

I had 4 plants germinate from the six (two of each variety) that I planted:
2 x Sungold
1 x Alicante
1 x Brandywine

The plants that did germinate unfortunately got a bit distracted by the tortoise's UV lamp and so grew a bit long and leggy. Today when I potted them on I notcied that none of them had a decent root system (although Brandywine was the strongest). When this happens all you need to do is bury them quite high up the stem - this will encourage them to bulk up a bit and produce more rootlets.
Despite the problems with the roots however, I am very pleased with the leaves they have produced - I just need to get the balance right next time!

From now on I will be leaving them in the conservatory for the day before bringing them in the house at night to harden them off.

I replaced the seeds thta did not germinate so hopefully we'll get a couple more plants that will fruit slightly later. I also planted 3 okra seeds today. The variety I'm using is called Cajun Delight F1 from Johnson's (I usually prefer Suttons or T&M but Johnson's seem to be the only ones who do okra!). This variety is supposedly able to grow in cooler climates, even outdoors. To get them off to a good start I have placed them underneath some "cloches" (aka clear plastic bags borrowed from the supermarket) and put them on the heat pad we occasionally use for brewing. We'll see how they go!

Changing the subject, one of our chickens has started laying again, which makes a nice change from duck eggs! However, last weekend I noticed two of them fighting each other in the garden. They were really going for each other, like fighting cocks, pecking at each other's eyes, flapping their wings, flailing their legs about. We all ran outside to break it up and found one of them acting very peculiarly. She seemed to be wandering around looking poorly and lost and on every breath she made a little wheezing cry. We'd never heard anything like this before, although she had been making the noise a little earlier on in the day. We thought she may have been injured in the fight, but her face was fine - no blood, scratches or anything. I checked her vent which was fine, her feet, looked down her throat...she seemed perfectly fine apart from the fact that she looked weak and kept making that little wheezing noise. We let her down and she went to hide in a corner. She wouldn't take water but she ate as if she starved. We didn't know what was going on - I had horrible thoughts of "bird flu" and "old age" but thankfully she then went to the toilet - it was green and pretty runny, and this solved the problem - she had worms! So, a dose of an organic wormer in their water and it all cleared up!

And better yet, the particular wormer we use means that you don't have to throw the eggs away - it's perfectly safe to use them.

Finally, I'm going to babble on and on about textiles. I had another spinning lesson on Wednesday with my lovely teacher Carol Keats ( where I learned how to spin silk and exotic fibres.

Let's start with silk. Silk is of course produced by silk worms - it comes from the cocoons that the caterpillars weave themselves when it's time for them to pupate. There are many varieties of silk worm, but they can be easily divided into domesticated ones - which are utterly dependent on humans, cannot fly and eat only mulberry leaves - and wild ones, which can get along fine by themselves and have a much more varied diet. Farmed silkworms produce pure white "mulberry" silk and wild silk worms make "tussah silk", which is less pure and includes tanins which turn it a more goldeny colour. (Above: tussah silk tops far right, mulberry silk tops second from the right).

To harvest the silk the cocoons are collected and steamed to kill the grubs inside - traditionally the peasants eat the grubs as they are a good source of protein. The cocoons are then placed in hot water and the almost invisible end of the silk fibres is picked up. In a group of seven it is then unravelled and from there can be spun or combed. This is pure silk.

There is some scum left over from this process, but this still contains silk so is not wasted. It is collected up and combed. The fibres are much shorter and it contains lumps of vegetable matter, but is still useful! When spun it gives wonderful texture. Apparently it is hard to spin but I don't know, I like short draw so I quite enjoyed it! (Above: silk "scum" top in the centre).

The pure silk can then be woven into fine silk cloth. The wasted silk from this process (silk waste) is not wasted either. The fibres are tangled and compacted, but can be cut up and carded into fluffy rolags. (Above: silk waste rolags, far left, and silk waste second from the left). The "recycled sari silk" that is popular now is silk waste. From there it is easy to spin!

My homework this week is to spin a pure silk yarn from this beautiful silk cap and recycled sari silk (above). As you can see I have already carded some rolags from the waste. The cap has been vegetable dyed by Carol by dipping each corner into a different dye bath.

Silk caps are made when the cocoon, rather than being unravelled, is wetted and stretched over a frame. One cap is made up of lots of different cocoons, and caps are sold in a big bundle called a bell. To spin from a silk cap, you need to separate out on layer (one individual cocoon) and tear it away from the rest of the cap. You then rearrange it back into the cap shape, before using your hands to make a hole in the middle. From there you pull hard, increasing the distance between your two hands and drafting the fibres out, until you have a roving! The fibres are nice and long in a silk cap so spinning it is easy! - a bloke making silk caps.

Carol also taught me about unusual fibres. This picture shows, from left to right: uncarded bleached bamboo filament; carbonised bamboo top; uncarded sya bean fibre; soya bean top; milk top (no joke!); banana rolags; seaweed fibre!

Let's start with the bamboo. It's INCREDIBLY soft, and feels really luxurious against the skin. Of course bamboo grows wild and very rapidly in China etc. and needs no fertilisers to help it grow. It can grow at an amazing rate, and is anti-bacterial. It is 100% biodegradable. So it's pretty environmentally friendly, if you conveniently forget about transportation and processing! The bamboo fibre is actually filament - the fibres are pulped and then extruded to make a filament (but I'm going to refer to them as fibres anyways or I'll get totally muddled up!). The fibres are short. It needs to be carded with superfine cards - Carol doesn't make rolags when she's carded it, she leaves it in a little sheet. It's getting mroe popular and I know of a couple of high street chains who are using it this season.

The soya bean fibre is a by-product of the tofu industry! Again I think this is a filament.

Milk fibre - I'm not kidding! I have no idea how they make this but I can tell you that it is luciously soft and smooth - really luxurious.

Bamboo is now used a poor man's silk. When you get it the fibres have a beautiful sheen, and stick together in thin ropes. When carded however it fluffs up rather like meringue does! The fibres need to be snipped before carding as they can be up to 3ft long!

And seaweed fibre...I haven't tried this out yet, but it too is very soft and smooth. It has a slight odour but not an unpleasant one. I'll let you know how it spins up!

And finally, more homework (though it never feels like "work"): I'm going to spin a yarn from this fantastic blend of fibres. Some of them Carol has dyed herself. I really love the earthy tones she's chosen. Clockwise from top left: silk top, carded banana, wool (longwool & lustre), bamboo top, nylon, silk waste, more carded banana, uncarded banana. Can't wait to get going!

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The cure-all

I have a mild interest in traditional herbal remedies - I don't necessarily believe them all, it more stems from my interest in wildfood. However I have tried out some crazy remedies and found them to work. For example, rubbing a sage leaf across your teeth does whiten them up; inhaling the smell of lavender does make me feel's not all rubbish.

But I have one wildfood remedy that I particularly like, and that is rosehip syrup. Mum says that in the Stone Age you used to be able to buy the syrup from the chemist, but nowadays if you want it, you have to make it yourself. I take between 2 and 4 desert spoonfuls a couple of times a day if I feel myself coming down with something. I find it really soothing on a sore throat. It's very sweet but with a delicious fruity flavour, and I can even imagine it used simply as a foodstuff - maybe drizzled over ice cream? (Although our rosehp wine this year has come out a bit too acidic - we'll see how it ages).

The recipe we used this year was very clear and easy to follow with plenty of pictures and you can find it here:

I would say do not follow the advice of Alys Fowler who made it on Gardener's World last year - she was chopping the rosehips by hand, which means that you come into contact with all the little hairs which make you itch like mad. We just bunged them in the food processor after topping and tailing and it worked fine.

Another remedy is one that I came across on my school's French exchange trip! My friend's mother put a small, peeled whole onion in a jar of honey and gave me a spoonful of that every day one time when I had a cold. I can't say it was the most delicious thing I'd ever tasted but it certainly wasn't as bad as I had thought it would be either.

When Dad, who is a diabetic so doesn't heal very quickly, cuts himself or what have you, we often put honey on the wound and it seems to work a treat, even when prescription creams from the doctor's don't.

I take honey and lemon when I have tonsilitis.

It is also said that taking local honey can help with hayfever, I expect becuase the honey contains pollens from the area. We may be giving a few jars away, now that we've processed our honey, or I may hoard them jealously and eat it all myself...

Monday, March 2, 2009

We are very lucky in our village to have a proper butcher's shop. I wish more people would use it, instead of buying their meat at the supermarket. Our butchers are Winston and Michael. They recently took delivery of some freshly caught rabbits and put them in the freezer. Winston will only accept rabbits that have been ferreted, so there's no damage to the carcas and no lead shot to break you teeth on. Michael chopped one up for me
- it made 6 good pieces. It made a wonderful casserole. Here's what I did:-

-I dipped the pieces in plain flour and browned them in a pan with a lump of butter and some olive oil.
-I set them aside in a heavy bottom casserole dish while I fried off two medium onions, roughly chopped and about 3 plump cloves of garlic (because you can never have enough garlic).
-I put the onions and garlic with the rabbit pieces.
-Then I fried up 4 carrots, chopped quite thick, a handful of button mushrooms and 3 celery sticks, also chopped, and then put these with the rabbit.
-Next I added three generous glasses of white wine (ours was homemade apple wine but anything would do - cider works too), and about half a pint of chicken stock made with a stock cube.
-Finally I added two teaspoons of whole grain mustard and some dried marjoram. (Fresh would have been better, but it's too early in the season).
-I brought the whole lot simmering point on the top of the stove, then put the lid on and put it in the oven at about 180 degrees c.
I was intending to cook it for about 2 hours but in the end, my husband had to see the end of the rugby and my neighbour turned up for a gin and tonic, so it was nearer 3 hours. I had looked at it once during cooking to make sure there was enough liquid.
We ate it with some boulangere potatoes (potatoes and onions baked in the oven in stock), but when I do it again, I'll serve it with mashed potatoes.

This recipe is a marriage of the rabbit recipe in Gary Rhodes' New British Classics, and the recipe of our neighbours in France, Georgette and Jean who say rabbit is "tres bon avec les carottes".