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 well...it 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 http://alittleisland-tv.blogspot.com/) 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 principle...as well as the rest of them, but this one in particular). Seeing that baby bee take her first few steps was absolutely lovely...so 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 garden...so 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!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Thinking About Autumn

I know it's only August but autumn will be upon us before we know it! Although I'll miss the summer weather (yes, who could do without rain, rain, and a bit more rain?!) the excitement of the harvest is already making me fidget with anticipation.

The first blackberries are just beginning to ripen, heralding the beginning of crumbles, pies and lovely warming puddings for the darkening evenings. Last year was an absolutely amazing year for apples and haws (hawthorn berries) - this year they aren't doing quite as well, but we'll still be scrumping away and making apple wine, cider, and endless apple sauce and puddings. I can't wait for our kitchen to be permeated with the smell of slowly disintergrating apples - yellow, green, pink-blushed, red...

It's a good prunus year this year though. There are sloes everywhere, so dense in places that the hedge appears blue. They're not quite ripe yet but it won't be long. Their big sisters the damsons are already ripening up - we all went on a walk at the weekend and found one bush where the damsons were already soft and sweet enough to eat raw...with these fruits we'll be making alcohol - damson wine, sloe gin and sloe sherry...these are my favourite drinks. The sloe concoctions are too sweet to drink in any great quantity but they make the perfect apperitif for a cold winter night...it's just a shame that they have to age for at least a year before they're drinkable!

I have my list of foraging spots ready to go, and am hoping to get out in the canoe soon to sample the wild raspberries that nestle in a very secret spot on the canal bank...if I told you where they are, I'd have to kill you.

My squashes are now really fattening up. They've still got plenty of little fruits left to form but the existing ones are really soaking up any sunshine that manages to peep through the cloud. The Delicata is now bigger than my fist and the Blue Hubbard is actually beginning to turn blue-grey. I can't wait to be eating my own recipe spicy squash soup with parmesan croutons, and the roasted spiced squash that we always eat with Christmas dinner!

The sweet corn is flowering, as are the sunflowers, both of whom will be setting seed as summer turns to autumn. Beetroot and parsnips are swelling under the ground. The late flowers, such as lavenders, dahlias, goldenrod and agapanthus are flowering too. White clover covers the fields like snow. It smells like honey!

As far as bees are concerned, the queen will begin to slow down laying through the autumn, perhaps even stopping completely in the depths of winter. At the moment however it is still all hands on deck; the girls are bringing in nectar, propylis, and pollen in preparation for the cold months ahead. It's been so interesting this year to see how the colony changes throughout the season. For example, earlier in the year when we allowed them to build some comb without foundation, they were putting drone brood everywhere. Now even the drone traps are bursting with worker brood.

This year we have expanded our number of hives by more than 300%. Next year however we will be focusing on maintaining our current numbers and encouraging them to produce honey. But before we get ahead of ourselves, it's now time to turn our attention to preparing the bees for winter. We'll be feeding them sugar and honey to increase their stores and to help them build out the new foundation that we've given them. It takes seven parts of honey/sugar for a bee to produce one part of wax, so giving them some extra food will allow them to build comb without depleting their stores before the winter even arrives. Getting the bees through the winter healthy and happy is now number one priority.

This autumn I'll be making a few changes to the garden. We have lots of room to plant new things. I want to cover our fence in Japanese Wineberry, rambling roses, passion flowers (and fruits!) and Clematis. I want to grow some Camassia quamash, Houttuynia cordata (orange bush, used for flavouring in Vietnamese food, aparently) and all sorts of other oddities. I also have my eye on zingibers (gingers) and musas (bananas) for inside the house...the zingibers at work are in flower and they smell like lilies, only better! The citruses are also in flower, their heavy neroli scent hangs like a cloud in the Old Glasshouse. That reminds me that in a few months the oranges and clementines will be in season, and we'll be studding them with cloves to make pomanders! And soon after that we'll be racking our brains to think of a way of making diabetic-friendly marmalade for Dad's delectation and delight! (This year we tried setting it with orange jelly...a complete disaster! But we might try gelatine again).

It's hard to believe that in a few short months I'll be gagging for spring to come so I can get planting stuff in the garden. Most of the plants I've grown this year are annuals so they'll all be gone, but next year I'll just start again and have an even better season than this one (I'll be sowing my peas direct!!!). I also have some new experiments I want to try next year - I want to try growing chickpeas and lentils, and some unusual chilli and tomato varieties too. And who knows, I may even have a brand new allotment for my late crops to colonise!

Oh well, I suppose it was inevitable...

Omlette, the company that brought the ridiculous Eglu chicken house have now come up with the Beehaus hive.

It sounds a lot like the Dartington long hive - basically a horizontal hive, like a top bar hive, but with 14x12" frames.

The Beehaus costs £465 (!!!!!!!!!!!!!! RIDICULOUS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) and you can also buy a starter kit with equipment (including "liquid smoke" - aka tepid water!!) and bees.

Well, if this gets a new generation of beekeepers going, particularly in cities, then I applaud it, but I am v. worried that bees are now availible at the click of a button. So now people can just buy bees without even knowing the name of "that mite thingy"!

The Beehaus kit includes "Beekeeping Guide: a complete guide to beekeeping packed with useful advice". I hope that those daft enough to spend £465 for a hive are not so daft as to read only this one unnamed book on beekeeping.

I think my dad summed it up perfectly just now when he grumbled very gloomily "at least they've gone for frames instead of bloody top bars."

Read the BBC article here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/8184655.stm


If you do want to keep bees and are considering buying a Beehaus, my advice as a beekeeper with a few years experience is to go along to your local beekeeping association's next event and find out more there - most beekeepers will be happy to answer all your questions, and you might even be able to put on a suit and see inside a real working hive. Go to country fairs, bee auctions etc. where you can learn more about the equipment that every beekeeper needs. Visit the nearest Thorne's, the main beekeeping shop in the UK, and have a look at the stuff they sell (this year they've had a complete beginner's kit for an absolutely fabulous price - see http://www.thorne.co.uk/).
Most importantly, go on a course or find an experienced beekeeper who can act as your "buddy", and read up on all the diseases and pests that we're having problems with at the moment - beekeeping is no walk in the park, and requires even more dedication than keeping chickens becuase you can't just ask Mrs Next Door to pop over once or twice a day and and throw food at them!

Information is the most important thing you will need to start keeping bees. You also need to have had contact with bees, equipment and the beekeeping community before you buy - plenty of people think they really want to keep bees until they stung. You only know if you'll be able to keep bees once you've been engulfed in a buzzing, stinging, angry cloud of them! You also need to know that you'll be able to handle the equipment you're thinking of buying, e.g. I've always used 14x12" brood frames like in the Beehaus, but have now swapped for smaller ones becuase I find them very ungainly and too big and heavy. However, they might be perfect for you.

The best advice I can give you is try before you buy. If you decide that a horizontal hive like the Beehaus is for you (certainly they have advantages, e.g. less lifting) then go ahead, but you need to know about all different ways of keeping bees, and their price tags and consequences for the bees, before you make a choice.

Oh yeah, and get your bees locally and from a trusted beekeeper. Apart from the obvious problems with unknown stock (you don't know if they have a disease, what their temperament is like, etc. unless you can trust the person you're buying from) there are other problems you may come across, e.g. this year one of our friends ordered a five frame nuc from one guy and it never even arrived!
For more info on bees and beekeeping see the BBKA's website (http://www.britishbee.org.uk/). You might also want to look at the Basic syllabus (for beekeeping exams - not essential, but it's stuff that every beekeeper should know anyway - http://www.britishbee.org.uk/files/syllabuses/basic_all.pdf).