Tuesday, 20 November 2012

New doors

The builders finished a week ago, the new patio doors are in an the house is weather tight again.

Monday, 19 November 2012

The Joy of Veg

The day has arrived when some of my new plants have come up with the goods!  Oh Frabjus day.
First up the Yacon; the frost had previously taken out the leaves, so I figured that its useful days of growing were over for this season.... Time to have a look under the ground.  I was expecting one or two tubers, but what I got was five decent sized ones.  Now I believe these things can grow to be huge so I might look back at these and think they are rather tame, but for now I am quite pleased with five hens egg sized tubers.
The plant had only been in my garden for one and a half months, the root structure was still pot shapes and the stem only reached about one meter.  Next year with a full run at the growing season the results may be bigger and better.
I had to look up how to harvest Yacon on line to make sure I would not kill it.  It turns out that the round tubery things are the bounty and the ones that look like Jerusalem artichokes are the bit that propagate next year.  you have to keep the crown, as a plant after harvesting.  It is now in a bucket in my porch to keep it frost free.
But what of the flavor? They are sweet, and crunchy with a light texture.  Rather delightful! The texture is quite unexpected for a root vegetable, more like an apple than a root vegetable.  This did lead me to wonder what the french would call it, as 'apple of the ground' is already taken.  I can only assume they would call it a Yacon.  But maybe their name for potato will need revising.
Next up the Oca; less of a run away success, but only in quantity.  Like the Yacon, it was still growing in the shape of its old pot.  It had grown a few tubers.  Some of which the slugs had nibbled.  Unlike the Yacon the eaty bit of the Oca is also the growy bit for next year, so some restraint is needed.  But I had to have a nibble on one.  It was like a raw potato in texture with a slightly sour acidic citrus flavor.  Apparently the acidic flavor mellows after a couple of days in the sun, but I am not going to eat any more to find out as the rest are going to be seed for next year.

Last and by a long way, not least, the Chilean Guava;  When I bought the plant it had two berries on it.  Having read that they look ready long before they are, I didn't want to risk picking them too early.  As the leaves are falling off of the trees, I figured they will not be getting any riper, so I gave it a go.  Wow I can see what Queen Victoria was on about!  They are amazing.  The most obvious thing they taste like is strawberries, but there is something more that I could not quite put my finger on.  It looks like that other flavor will have to wait until next year.  Lets hope it produced more berries next year.

Friday, 9 November 2012

New kitchen; day 2

A new opening in the fireplace.  Woo hoo!

And an new hole in the back of the house.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

The New Kitchen; Phase 1

Today I came home to a new house.  It looked a lot like the old house that I am used to, but it has changed and been transformed into something more.  A version of its old self, but with extra excitement.  The reason for this extra excitement is that today is the first day of building work.  I am having some walls removed and some new ones put in.  It will be amazing and choirs of angels will sing as you walk in.  Something like that anyway.

The first and most obvious change that I noticed when I arrived at the house was that where there was once a driveway, there is now an enormous pile of rubble.  I had been warned that this was the case.  The main builder had rung me at work to warn me that they had not been able to fit a skip onto the drive and still get into the front door.  So the rubble is resting on the drive and will be cleared tomorrow.  It was a small drive before but now it is very small.

Upon entering the house I was instantly hit by the change.  The door closed with a bit more force than usual  this was due to there being a big hole in the back of the house.  But far more exciting than that I could see the back of the house from just inside the front door.  The wall that used to make the kitchen feel small and the dining room feel dingy was gone.  All that remains is ends of some bricks

This all probably doesn't mean too much with out a before picture.  

Its a different view, but you get the idea.

Tomorrow there should be fewer holes and acros in the house.  The chimney should be opened up too.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Soap demo

I thought I'd put together a few photos of soap making as there has been some interest.

Put all of the fats (olive oil, beeswax, coconut oil) in a pan.

Heat it all up.

The fats and caustic.

Pour the caustic into the fats and mix until trace.  Once it reaches trace, add the tea tree oil.

Put the soap mixture into a mold.
Simple as that!  I have it down to less than half an hour from getting the ingredients out, to putting the soap in the molds and washing up the bowls.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Fruit of the Fuchsia

It has just occurred to me that when I introduced my various plants, I only talked about the ones I bought from Edulis, but I neglected to mention any other plants.  I think it would be a bit too much to, and waaaay too boring to list every plant in the garden, but there is at least one that I should mention.

When I bought the house, the garden was quite well stocked with flowers.  Clearly the previous owner had been a keen flower gardener and had put a lot of time and effort into it.  Not being a flower person, I can't fully appreciate it, but they do look pretty.  My views on plants are that, ideally, they should do a bit more than look pretty.  For the time being I have plenty of other things to think about inside the house, so the garden is getting by with mostly just looking pretty.  Actually it is looking pretty neglected, but there are flowers.

I have mentioned before that I have a book called 'A Taste Of The Unexpected'.  In it there is information on a variety of unusual plants.  But I guess on some level I always knew that people in South America ate vegetables, so it is not all that unexpected.  What was really unexpected, was that fuchsias produce fruit.  Now I know that we've all got to breed, and fruit is how plants do it, so I shouldn't be surprised.  But the fact that it produces a fruit worth talking about, did catch me out.  I had always assumed that it was just another empty vessel.  All show and nothing more.

Well it turns out that the previous owner of my house had planted a rather fruity fuchsia and when it started producing, I had a nibble.  The most unexpected thing, though, was that the local wildlife let me.  For some reason the birds did not touch the berries.  By comparison I did not see a single black currant ripen in my garden.  I saw them nearly ripe and then they were gone.  The fuchsia berries hung on the bush the whole time just waiting for me.

The fuchsia berries were sweet and delicate in flavor, with a texture a bit like a grape and a taste that reminded me of pomegranate, although it didn't seem to remind anyone else.  I guess I will just have to wait until next summer to get another opinion.

Sunday, 28 October 2012


Soap!  Soap is a corner stone of our modern, civilized and above all clean society.  It is cheap and readily available   It helps prevent a range of hideousness skin complaints.  It helps keep our bodies looking spry and fresh.  Well, as best they can.  It helps to keep our hands sanitized, so we can eat with our fingers and not pick up the conditions that physicians regard as 'interesting'.  It achieves all this and yet it is cheap and readily available.

To make it requires mixing some form of fat with caustic soda, in just the right ratio.  If there is too much fat the result will be an oily mess, too much caustic soda and you have drain cleaner.  This will work to clean your skin, but it will also remove a lot of it in the process, resulting in hideous scarring and a stay in hospital.  Given the potential side effects of making soap and its cheapness and availability, you might ask what kind of a fool would make their own soap?

I first made my own soap a year ago.  Tired of commercial soap that seemed to be leaving my skin as a dry and crumbly husk, I decided to look for another option.  The most obvious choice would be to pay a little more to get a higher quality soap.  I chose not to spend the money.  I chose something else.

In part this was so that I could put tea tree oil into the soap, to have all of that anti-bacterial and anti-fungal goodness in a natural way.  In part it was also due to same old curiosity that gets me into all of these things.

As is the modern way, to find out more I consulted the internet.  It turns out that soap is formed through a chemical reaction between fat and caustic soda, known as Saponification.  Through the magic of chemistry soap is formed.  As this is a chemical reaction, the chemicals need to be in just the right ratio, otherwise there will be some left over.  Apparently in the industrial process of soap making they put in an excess of caustic, so that all of the fat turns to soap, then they engage in a few more steps of chemical wizardry to remove the excess caustic to leave only soap.  This is way too much effort and bother for home soap making and so most people put in 5 -10% excess fat, to make sure all of the caustic is gone before it get to their skin.

Hopefully by now you have worked out that soap making is not a risk free process.  If you are a chemist, about now you will probably give a derisory snort about the trifling dangers of caustic.  If not you may be squealing because caustic could damage your beautiful skin.  So I should say don't try this at home.  I don't want to held responsible for people getting caustic burns.  If you still insist on making soap, make sure you use take care and use the correct protection (clothes, goggles and gloves that can resist caustic).

To make soap it is important to get the ratios of the fats that you are using and the caustic right.  I may have mentioned this already.  Different types of fat need different amounts of caustic to make soap, because of the length of the molecules.  The actual calculation for the ratios of fats to caustic is too long and boring to detail here, but the easiest way to calculate it is to get someone else to do it for you.  Thanks to the internet, this little bit of outsourcing is easy and free.  There are several 'saponification calculators' out there on the internet.  Just google it.

Different types of fat will have different effects on the resulting soap.  Some will make it mere bubbly, while others will make it harder, some can have a drying effect on the skin.  Again this information is out there on the internet and there are hundreds of types of fat that can be used, so I will not try to detail them here.

My first attempt at making soap, I chose to use olive oil as my only type of fat.  I had experienced and become rather fond of olive soap on a trip to Syria a few years ago.  However in this part of the world it seems to change hands at a price more associated with speculative trading of commodities.  To its fans olive soap is soft and creamy.  To its detractor it is slimy and doesn't bubble.  To the people who make it, it is a slow process.

There are several methods that can be used to make soap, most notably the hot process and the cold process.  The hot process, as you might expect, is hot, but the cold process is not cold, it is just not as hot as the hot one.  most people who make soap at home opt for the cold process.  This involves dissolving the caustic in water (in a well ventilated area),  which will automatically heat up, and melting/ heating the fats, then combining them at about 40 degrees C.  Once they are combined, stir until they thicken, known as the 'trace' point.

The time it takes to reach trace can vary according to what fats are being used.  I had read that olive oil can take a long time to reach trace, but I was still surprised when I was still stirring an hour later.  I then resorted to using a hand held blender and when it reached trace, I wan't sure if I had just emulsified the mixture or not.

Once trace is reached, other smelly oils can be added, in my case tea tree oil, and the mixture is poured into molds.  It takes a few days to harden to the point where it can be turned out of the molds.  Then it should be left in an airing cupboard for six weeks, to make sure the reaction has finished and there is no caustic left in there.

After my first foray into soap making, I became more adventurous and used a combination of bees wax, olive oil and coconut butter as the fat.  This has the advantage that it reaches trace almost instantly.  In fact the first time I made it I thought the wax had set when I poured in the slightly cooler caustic solution.

30g Beeswax
45g Coconut oil
225g Pomace olive oil
114g (=114ml) Water
38g Caustic soda

It produces a soap that is creamy and pleasant.  I have been using almost nothing else in the shower or bath for the last year, and I still have skin.  The ingredients are cheap, and in my house at least this soap is readily available.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Bacon Jam

The origins of Bacon Jam date back to a walk I took with an old school friend in the hills above the town where we grew up.  We had been to an event the day before, and after a leisurely start involving bacon sandwiches and tea, we made it out of the house.  We cycled up to the hills on some frankly unroadworthy bicycles that were lurking in garage like some long neglected childhood memorabilia.  My bike jumped a few inches to the right with every rotation of the rear wheel, owing to a significant buckle, probably where a heavy object was placed on it some time in the past.  Her bike had to be cycled in a near crouching position, as the seat could not be adjusted.

After a somewhat cautious cycle ride, we made it to our destination and embarked on our intended walk.  As we walked our conversation ranged over a number of topics, but as is so often the case when two people keen on eating get together sooner or later the conversation settles on food.  Or more specifically  'how great are bacon sandwiches!', and how it would be good to have them more often, but they are not very convenient in a lifestyle of rushing around.  In fact all we have time for in the mornings is some jam on toast.  Wouldn't it be good to have bacon sandwiches available with the convenience of jam.  BACON JAM!  It seems so obvious once you think about it.

From that point the dye was cast and the challenge was accepted.  Bacon Jam would become a reality.  What I had in mind was combining bacon with an apple sauce to make it fit into a jar as one preservable mass.  The sauce could be any one of a number of types of apple sauces, jellies, chutneys or ketchups, but I settled on crab apple jelly.  I guess that bacon in jelly is technically potted meat, but Bacon Jam has a bit more panache to it and it is written in capital letters, which has to be a good sign!
Crab apples: clever camera work makes them look big but they are really  small.

Next time I happened to be passing a crab apple tree (on common land) I picked a small bag full.  These were duly chopped, covered with water and boiled for ...time.  I can't tell you how much time because I wasn't paying that much attention.  If you have read my introductory blog you may noted that I referred to apples boiling on the hob, and that is why my time keeping was a bit lax.  Instead of timing the boiling of the apples I started a blog.
Chopped crab apples boiling in the pan.  It is a fairly large pan  and they are small apples, just in case you thought  they were large apples in a cauldron.
It was taking a long time for the apples to of mushy so I decided to give them a hand with a potato masher. I soon regretted it though as the liquor (or juice if you are neither pretentious or too bothered about technicalities) went cloudy.  Every recipe I have ever seen for crab apple jelly mentions that you should not squeeze the apple pulp when you are draining it as it will make the juice cloudy.  It was only afterwards, whilst looking at the cloudy juice, that I reflected on the similarities between squeezing and mashing.
As I had only picked enough crab apples for one small batch I decided to soldier on, and hung the pulp in a jelly bag (actually the bag from my fruit press) to drain over night.
Apple pulp hanging over cloudy juice!
The next day I boiled a bacon joint and finely chopped some of it.  At the same time I measured the crab apple juice and added about half the amount by volume of sugar.  When I boiled it I was quite pleased to see that I went clear.  So I was getting bothered for no reason.
The now clear mixture of crab apple juice and sugar boiling.
I then took some of the boiling juice and added the chopped bacon.  It was at this point that I made a mistake.  Thinking that the sweetness of the crab apple jelly may be too much on a whole slice of bread, I added some of the bacon juice.  This instantly went cloudy and pink.  This was not the look I was chasing.  But all is well, that ends well.  It looks good on toast and tastes even better.  It is quite powerful and may be more befitting canapes.

Saturday, 6 October 2012


Cravats are wonderful things!  You can disagree with me on this, but you will be wrong.  There is a sad shortage of cravats in every day dress and as such they are quite hard to find.  Up until recently I myself only owned one cravat.  A rather sorry looking polyester paisley affair.  It fell some way short of the dashing silk cravat I aspire to.

I happen to be rather fond of taffeta, but as a heterosexual chap there are not many ways I can get away with wearing it.   A cravat is one of the ways I can get away with wearing it.  I had bit of cloth left over from making a waistcoat, so I thought I would have a go at making cravat.

I had seen a vogue patterns for a few accessories including a cravat, but some thing had always stopped me from buying it.  Perhaps Jupiter's transit through Aquarius made me overly cautious, or perhaps it was the thought of paying £12.99 for a pattern for something, that even I could work out was basically a strip of cloth.  So I looked on the internet for people who had faced this dilemma before.  Surprisingly there was a total lack of useful advice.  I found a couple of people who mentioned the fact that they had made cravats for their wedding and 'saved a fortune!', someone who had made a cravat for their teddy, and someone showing how to make an 'easy' cravat using elastic and a lace doily.  Given that a cravat is essentially a straight strip of cloth, I' not sure how much easier it is to use a doily.

Anyway, I decided to do what I should have done from the start and took a closer look at my cravat.  What surprised me was it is even simpler than I had imagined.  I was expecting some kind of subtle but important shape cut on the bias, so that it hangs just so......No It really is just a long strip of cloth, pointed at both ends.  It is not even cut on the bias.  There is no lining, interfacing, webbing or any other material.  There is not even any difficult stitching.  So it more surprising that the cravat is not the introductory piece of sewing, equivalent to making a tie rack in woodwork, or 'hello world' in programming.

Instructions for how to make a cravat!
A cravat is just a strip of cloth aprox 115cm in length and 14cm wide, which has been finished to leave no cut edges.  To make the simplest cravat (one that is the same on both sides) fold a piece of cloth and pin it so that it does not move.

Mark a chalk line 14cm from the fold, along the length.

Mark a right angle point at one end then measure 115cm to the other end and mark a similar point there too.

If you need to cut out the cloth before you sew then don't forget to leave some seam allowance as you will be sewing along the chalk lines.

Starting at the fold, sew along the chalk line until you are almost at the middle.  Repeat from the other end, leaving a gap of about 10cm-15cm un-sewn in the middle.

Trim the seam allowance.

Turn the whole thing inside out through the gap that you left in the middle.

Press all of the edges with an iron to make them all nice and crisp.

Some cravats are left at that point, but you can close the hole and sew in some folds to make the back of the neck part look more attractive.

One finished cravat!

My lovely taffeta cravat.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Hopes of perennial food

What is an appropriate level of excitement for buying plants?  I don't have an adequate answer to that question, but suffice to say I am very excited. I have been casting an covetous eye over the Edulis website/catalog for some time, but I finally decided stop vacillating and take a few of my hard earned notes and actually buy some plants.

I have been interested in self-sufficiency for a very long time and first became aware of permaculture and forest gardening at the age of 12 (or thereabouts) when one of the national newspapers ran an interview with Bill Mollison in their weekend magazine.  I got his book, Permaclture One, out of the library and was given a couple of other permaculture/forest gardening books by my sister.  I even made an attempt to plant a forest garden by under-planting some apple trees with some gooseberrys and strawberrys, but the trees were far too close together, so very little light reach the lower layers, meaning no fruit.  Since then I have got on with other things, finished school, university, work, back to university, a couple more jobs, back to university again, but this time as staff.  All that time the dream of self-sufficiency has been with me.  I even had an allotment at one point, but growing annual plants can be rather time consuming.  At the time I was mainly living over a hundred miles away from my allotment which made midweek visits for watering and weeding a bit unrealistic.

This experience only made me more drawn to permaculture ideas of using perennial plants where possible.  They only need to be planted once, can usually stand a fight against a few weeds, usually need less nurturing and keep on producing food.

Fundamentally I am quite lazy, the kind of laziness where I would spend hours writing a program or making some equipment, just to avoid a repetitive task.  Its the kind of laziness that engineers should have.  So the idea of doing the planting once and getting it right appeals to me.  My ideal garden would be one that produces lots of food and the most effort that I have to put in, is eating it all.  This is why I take an interest in perennial vegetables and fruit.  A little while ago my sister gave me a copy of 'Taste of the unexpected' by Mark Diacono, which introduced me to some very exciting species of fruit of veg (It really is a great and inspiring book, with beautiful photos).  Some of these plants sound almost indefeasibly exciting offering the delectable culinary wonders, but with out the nurturing usually associated with growing veg.  (Maybe that book is rather too well written!)  The main problem is that these plants (with the exception of fuchsias and a couple of others) are not available at your local garden centre.  After searching the web I found two places in the UK that stock such plants.  Edulis in Berkshire and the Agroforestry Research Trust in Totness.  After years of not having a garden that I could set up for production I finally have my own place and that is how I came to be hightailing it to Edulis to pick up some plants.

After much pondering the plants I settled on are; Yacon, Oca, Japanese Ginger, Wild Ginger, Wasabi, Szechuan Pepper, Chilean Guava, and Blue Honeysuckle.
If you are like me that is an almost pant wettingly exciting list of obscure plants that produce some lovely food.  Hopefully.

I now have these little beauties home and have planted them out or potted them on.  But what are these rare treasures I hear you cry.  Well luckily I have got my trusty camera out, so prepare yourselves.
lets start with the Szechuan Pepper.  I already cook with it thanks to some Chinese guys that I lived with a few years back.  It is actually the seed husks that are used as the spice, but the whole plant has quite an aroma.  However I will be thinking twice before using any other plant for culinary purposes on account of it having some of the most vicious thorns I have ever seen on a plant.  Even the leaf stems have thorns.
Those thorns make for an unappetizing look, but the smell is  a pleasure to behold.

Yacon is a root vegetable from the Andes, which is sometime called the ground pear.  Eating it is meant to give you super powers, but I may be getting it confused with something else, maybe kryptonite.  I have planted mine in a nice sunny spot in the middle of a flower bed and hopefully it will produce a crop in the remaining part of this year.
Oca is another Andean root vegetable that looks rather like clover. Again it should produce a crop this year. Although I will keep most of it for next years seed.

Chilean Guava as the name suggests is from Peru.  I believe they come from Chile too, but this one was collected in Peru apparently.  It is not a guava as you might know it either.  That might make it a contender for the most inappropriately named plant.  It is however a shrub that produces small red berries, but that would not make such a good name.  Apparently it was  favored by Queen Victoria and she was, after all, right about so many things such as sex, drugs, foreign policy .... well lets hope her taste in fruit is suitable to the modern age.

Japanese Ginger has edible shoots and looks rather splendid.  I am quite partial to ginger so lets hope this satisfies that desire.
Wild Ginger is not ginger at all, but I believe it is found in the wild, so slightly better naming there than the Chilean Guava.  It is a low ground cover type of plant and part of it is apparently edible and tastes of ginger, hence the name.  The other interesting thing about this plant is I have neglected to photograph it yet.  I shall remedy that in due course.
Wasabi is the green Japanese horseradish of sushi fame.  I am a big fan of sushi and have a shortage of useful ground cover plants, so choosing this was an easy decision.  It looks a bit like the Wild Ginger, and like the Wild Ginger I have not photographed it either.  Maybe I have a prejudice against ground cover plants.
All plants are in the ground or larger pots now, so lets hope they come up with the goods.

Well the update is here, the photos of the Wild Ginger and Wasabi are here. but it seems I toatally neglected to mention the blue honeysuckle.
Wild Ginger

So the Honeysuckle its from siberia, so it should be able to handle the cold.  It is a shrub rather than the usual climbing honeysuckle that you might know and its meant to produce tasty blue berries early in the season, which I am looking forward to.

Saturday, 29 September 2012


Hi Folks,
I have been considering, pondering, wondering and threatening to start a blog for some time, but until now it has not been a reality.  However various things have happened that meant there has never been a better time to start than right now.  So with crab apples boiling on the hob (more on that later) and the house marginally less messy that it was earlier, I have decided to get on with it.
So what is this all about?  That is really the question that has taken some time to answer.  I am Scientist by day, but when I am not professionally occupied with that, I have a range of interests, the diversity of which has often been the subject of comment.  These include designing and making things such as clothes, hats, other sewing bits, metalwork, DIY, cooking, gardening, permaculture, forest gardening, sport, yoga, bushcraft, beekeeping.  I could go on.
First of all I thought I would write a blog about trying to turn my garden into a permaculture forest garden and my love of obscure plants.  My recent trip to buy obscure fruit and vegetable plants from Edulis nursery spurred me to get on with writing blog, but i think its scope will be broad ranging that just food and gardens, and will take in all subject that occupy me.