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.