A little bit of self-discipline…

September 22, 2018
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Making the most of the season!

…wouldn’t go amiss! Those of you who frequent the Old-Style MSE forum may have noticed that I’ve gone way over on my grocery budget this month, and I’m actually at a bit of a loss to explain it. That probably means it’s a combination of factors, starting with me not paying proper attention to what I’m buying/growing & cooking. There’s also definitely an element that basic foodstuffs have been steadily creeping upwards in price, downwards in quantity and in some cases vanishing altogether from the easily-available supermarket shelves.

Anyway, one of the best tools I have for keeping costs under control is the meal-plan. I used to plan the week’s meals on a Friday morning, when I did the main grocery shop at our local market, but things have changed; some stalls have gone altogether, and some no longer trade on a Friday but others only then, so most weekends I’ll need to pay more than one visit to the market. And of course I work a number of weekends, through the warmer months. So it’s all got a bit chaotic and I need to impose some self-discipline after we had a number of large bills to pay this summer, mostly on the motor & moggy maintenance front.

So I’m going to try to post my weekly meal-plans up here, along with my usual ramblings, and stick to them! Most of the time now I’m just feeding four adults; two omnivores and two pescatarians. The girls will often cook a “main” dish for themselves, though they’ll usually share our vegetables & any carbs, but I try to make sure there are resources available for them to make things with. “HG” stands for home-grown, “HM” stands for home-made, and I’m only planning to list the “mains” – puddings are mostly yogurt or fresh fruit, lunches are HM soup or salad, or poached eggs on toast (though our chickens are currently in the moult, so we’re getting one egg a day out of 10 birds) and breakfasts might be pancakes with fruit, porridge with HM apple butter or crab-apple jelly, or toast made with “good” bread – I’m working on a new & hopefully more palatable sourdough starter right now, thanks to Sharon of Learn Sourdough.

This week’s plan:

  • Saturday: lamb or sweet potato tagine (using leftover lamb) with bulgur wheat, HG beans, carrots & courgette.
  • Sunday: roast chicken/roasted veg with roast potatoes, broccoli and HG carrots
  • Monday: Macaroni & cauliflower cheese & baked beans – beans possibly HM., lots of HG tomatoes to use up!
  • Tuesday: Baked potatoes, sausages, eggs (if any!) & stir-fried HG veg
  • Wednesday: chicken curry/lentil dahl with rice – frozen veg? Depends…
  • Thursday: Sausage/bean casserole with any potatoes I can lay my hands on, HG or otherwise, hopefully HG beans & carrots.
  • Friday – fish dish of some kind, depending on what the market fishmonger’s got at a good price, and whether the boats have been out. Trout sounds good!

I’m hoping to do some more preserving, if the weather plays ball and I can get out for some more blackberries & crab apples. Looks to me like a few more jars of jelly/apple butter would come in handy to get us right through to next summer, but then I’ll move onto chutney. So – will I be able to keep to my self-imposed budget in October? Watch this space…

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Home-grown beans, courgette and two colours of carrot!

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Some idiots, some good people…

September 4, 2018

End of the summer holidays & we can get out & about again without sitting in a traffic jam for half an hour! I’ve just been out blackberrying on the drove roads out to the north-west of our little town. I left my van in a convenient parking spot (its National Trust farmland; it really is a proper parking spot with plenty of room for working tractors to get past) and set off down the trail. Within a few yards of the parking spaces I was dismayed to find poo bags liberally scattered in the long grass either side of the path, all different colours, most of them not even tied shut. It’s not as if there isn’t a dog-waste bin down there; there is, and it’s a fox-proof one, so they hadn’t been dragged there, just thoughtlessly discarded by people who can’t bear to handle the inevitable by-products of pet ownership. It’s as if people just expect someone else to clean up after them, no matter where they are, and they clearly have no idea just how much damage those plastic bags can do to wildlife, or someone else’s dog, for that matter. It would be far better just to leave the poo where it’ll just rot down into the earth, as long as it’s not on the actual path. Sigh…

I got loads of berries, and found a hitherto-unsuspected crab apple too – yippee! I thought my imagination was running riot as I was thinking of blackberry & apple crumble, and could even smell the delicious tang of the apples, then I turned to see a little tree waving red-gold fruit gently at me above the hedgerow. They’re not quite ready yet, so that one’s “bookmarked” for a week or so’s time. There are a couple of others out there that I know of, one green, one yellow, and lots of elderberries and other goodies out there, free for the effort of picking them.

I only saw two other people out there on this lovely afternoon; a lone cyclist and a lady of much my own age, walking three very elderly retrievers. We exchanged a few pleasant words about being inappropriately dressed for the heat, me in my thorn-resisting denim & walking boots, her in a tweed skirt, cardigan & sensible-if-elderly knee-high country boots. I gathered blackberries for another ten minutes or so, until my tubs were full, then strolled back towards the van. And lo & behold, the poo bags were gone, all gone. There are good people out there too…

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Blackberries ripening in the garden…

The time has come…

August 30, 2018

… to pick up my long-neglected keyboard again. Life has started to calm down a little; the kittens are nearly 6 months old now and not quite so relentlessly cute and playful. My mother has moved, and despite other people’s worries about her leaving her lovely “sheltered” flat, is very much happier in her little bungalow, with a garden she can sit out in, and family & friends close by. I have come to the end of my summer shows, and am starting to move surplus stock on as most of my trading “dates” from now on until next spring are indoors, which means having not much more space than a tabletop. The allotment & garden are in full production and now I need to swing into action on the preserving front. It’s not been such a good year for apples & quinces, but the hedgerow fruits seem to have done rather well.

No. 2 son staggered through the door last night, having done a 12-mile training run whilst suffering from a raging cold, and begged for a lift back to the gym where he’d left his car. I wasn’t doing anything, and it was a chance to see him – he moved out (for the third time) a month or so ago – so gladly agreed. As I drove into the car park opposite the gym, my headlights lit up two little trees groaning under the weight of crab apples. So a good armful of those came home with me, whilst my son suddenly regained his athleticism and hurtled off into the night before anyone recognised him. This afternoon I went down to the old railway and liberated a tub of blackberries, and now a muslin full of boiled crab apples & blackberries, along with a sprig of rosemary from the garden, is dripping into one of my preserving pans to be jellied tomorrow. I must raid the stash of reclaimed jam-jars in the garage & clean them ready for use… Much though I’ll miss summer, and never want it to end, I do love this time of year!

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Crab apples & blackberries ready for boiling!

Just in case…

June 19, 2018

…you’ve been wondering where I’d got to, any spare time I’d imagined there might be has been well & truly usurped by these two cuties…

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Poppy & Dora

Not to mention this:

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Allotment, Spring 18

Or running my stall, or attempting to declutter via the local car boot sales, or helping my 92 y.o. mother prepare to move house, or preparing for the summer shows! Back in a little while, when things have calmed down and I can walk down the hallway without a kitten wrapped around my ankle…

And time has passed…

March 27, 2018

…again. Winter seems to have gone on forever, but at long last Spring really is in the air. I’ve been a bit quiet because there’s been a lot going on at home; my lovely mother has taken it into her head to move, aged 92. This is All Good, because although her “retirement” flat is lovely, and the on-site carers are absolute stars, she’s been so very lonely there since my stepfather passed away. Her new home is under 100 yards from the home of one of my brothers, and much closer to the other two as well, although further away from us. There are several other family members and friends also close by, so she will have people of all generations popping in all the time, which will be so very good for her. We’ll have to travel a little further, but we’ll get to see more family members when we go, so overall I’m well-pleased.

And – Him Indoors is running the London Marathon next month. This has obviously involved a lot of training, and a fair bit of fund-raising too, but more to the point, it’s been a huge learning curve for him in the field of social media. So I’ve spent a fair bit of any time that might otherwise have been “spare” mentoring him on his cyber-journey. He’d resisted all involvement up to now, but his “team” communicate & encourage each other via a Facebook group, so his time as a avowed technophobe has had to come to an end. I’m very proud of him; for tackling such an enormous thing in the first place, but also of the leaps forward he’s taken into cyberspace. (See Pete’s Marathon ReRun if you’re interested!)

I’ve also been clearing stuff out of my “work” shed, the garage and spare bedroom/sewing studio. Some has been sold, some given away and a few items, I’m afraid to say, actually did have to be dumped, as mice had got into the boxes. That does make me feel a little guilty; there’s not much point “rescuing” stuff if I only end up ruining it instead. It’s a little worrying to realise that though I’ve been working on it for weeks, I’ve probably only cleared about a quarter of what needs to be re-homed. And needless to say, I’ve somehow managed to acquire a fairly large rug/tapestry loom to replace the one that was too big to keep.

A decision has been reached to re-brand the remaining traders from the old Boscombe Vintage Market as the Velvet Magpies Vintage Market, as we don’t trade in Boscombe any longer. We haven’t done anything as a market over the past year, but we’ve all missed working together, so the time has come to start planning & moving forward again!

Anyway, the clocks moving forwards have brought one huge benefit; we can go for a stroll along the riverbank after tea! My seedlings are coming up, my allotment beds are being cleared; life is returning, and with it my writing mojo…

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Baffled again…

January 4, 2018
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Sweet old Christmas card

…not for the first time! I was intrigued to see all the posts on social media over the festive season about how a real Christmas tree is so much better for the environment than a fake tree. Well, of course it’s better that people should be encouraging the growing of trees rather than spinning copies up out of aldulterated oil & extruded metal that could certainly be put to better use. But most of the posts I read seemed to imply that a fake tree would only have been used once; i.e. you should have been buying a new fake tree every year… oh dear, I’m on the wrong planet again!

I’ve been getting quite cross with myself; surely it would be horribly patronising of me to think that real people actually do do just that? That they’ll spend serious amounts of money buying a fake tree & decorations in this year’s colourways that are just going to end up at the Tip as soon as it re-opens after the festive break? Of course, there will be those with good reasons for getting rid of a tree; they don’t last forever, they do get scruffy & fall apart eventually. People move or change their homes around and need a tree of a different size or shape. Some won’t have anywhere to keep stuff until next year, or their old decorations hold sad or bitter memories for them. But equally, there will be people out there next autumn who are wondering how they can afford to decorate; perhaps they could be given away rather than dumped? Which might restore the environmental balance a little?

And – things can be re-used in different ways, putting a new slant on old memories. I was amused & intrigued to find a number of our old floral candle-rings, once used as table decorations, now looking glorious in a starring role on this year’s tree. (We have two cats, one relatively young and very playful; the few surviving old glass decorations stayed safely in their boxes this Christmas!) Decorations do somehow hold memories; I often “rescue” vintage ones and you can almost feel the weight of stories accumulated over the years. Sometimes bittersweet, but mostly gentle and goodhearted. Somewhere I have some festive printed crepe paper that my grandfather treasured from his childhood, which was always wrapped around the bucket we had our tree in; he was born in 1883, and grew up, as did my father, then I myself in a close & happy, if sometimes far-flung, family. That piece of paper holds memories of well over a hundred festive Christmasses, though hardly any of them would have involved much money!

And in the meantime, I’ve come up with a different interpretation of the word “Epiphany” – the realisation that I will still be picking Christmas tree needles out of myself and our soft furnishings in July… Happy New Year to you all, and may the recycling/remaking/reusing/making-new-from-old Force be with you!

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A rescued vintage Santa…

Something somewhere isn’t right…

December 18, 2017

I had to run up to the supermarket on Saturday afternoon, having muddled up what should go into the freezer and what should go into the fridge after doing my market shop on Friday. (Excuse: I’d had a streaming cold since the start of the week.) I could hear carols floating over the allotments from one of the churches as I went up our road, and more carols floating over the green from the direction of the Square. The Christmas lights were flashing frantically, cars were circling the car park like hungry sharks, waiting to pounce on a space, and the supermarket was thronged with customers pushing overloaded trolleys stuffed with cheese dartboards and gallons of wine. Snatches of irritated conversations drifted past my ears…

“No, that was for Christmas Eve, dear. The cream is for Boxing Day!”

“Not that one, you know Jessica’s allergic to red colourants!”

“No, no, the Heston, not the Jamie!”

“Sorry, sir, we’ve sold right out of those now.”

I felt as if I’d landed on the wrong planet, not for the first time in the last few weeks. There was still more than a week to go until Christmas, but the good citizens of East Dorset are stocking up in good time, and by the looks of their trolleys they are all entertaining at least 20 people they desperately need to impress. Me, I’m just feeding 9, with mostly cooked-from-scratch-by-us food, some of it even grown-by-us. It’ll be a joint enterprise, and we’ll have a laugh as we prepare it together and try to cram 9 seats into our kitchen; the conservatory, which is much bigger, would be too cold for my 91 y.o. mother.

I’ve also had occasion to enter that great temple of Mammon, the Giant Shopping Centre in the big city 30 miles east. More flashing lights, lots of must-haves, more eye-watering prices for things that no-one needs, which might just raise a slight smile before ending up in a charity shop or possibly even the bin. Somehow it just all felt utterly surreal, absolutely divorced from any vestige of reality. No hint of midwinter magic, no connection to the Reason for the Season, not a glimmer of anything in any way genuine or personal. All that pressure to spend, spend, spend; all that glitter, no real gold.

We visited a new Scandinavian shop. There were some nice things, some of them definitely referencing genuine Scandinavian Christmas/Yule/midwinter traditions. But mostly, alas, just more plastic tat. I did buy a couple of items, one of them edible, one that will replace something that broke last year. But I can’t shake off a feeling that something underneath all this glitter and fake bonhomie and enforced generosity is terribly, horribly wrong… That this celebration really shouldn’t be all about greed, or even misplaced generosity. In all Northern Hemisphere traditions, it’s a celebration of the return of Light to the world, a promise that the darkness will be vanquished and growth will return. In the Christian tradition, a feast and a gift-giving to celebrate God’s gift to us.

I’ve been reading up about Christmas traditions all around the world. It seems that most people in most countries don’t put up their trees or decorate their houses until about the 23rd or 24th of December, which is how it was in the home I grew up in, in the dim & distant past. In many countries, the main meal & present-giving is actually on the evening of Christmas Eve, with Christmas Day being reserved for church and family visits. Boxing Day is livelier, with sport & dancing back on the menu, but still very sociable & family-based, rather than a rush to spend yet more money at the “sales”. In some countries, gift-giving doesn’t happen until Epiphany, or 6th January, tying in with the visit of the Kings to the baby Jesus, with their gifts of gold, frankincense & myrrh.

I particularly love the Icelandic idea of the jólabókaflóð, or Yule Book Flood, where everyone receives at least one book on Christmas Eve, then retires to bed with chocolate to read it. Of course, by then they’ve done the big meal and the gift-giving, but how much more relaxed & sane than my usual frantic last-minute Christmas Eve scrambles does that sound?!

I suspect we could learn a lot from countries that take a more laid-back & sociable approach to Christmas. Somehow we’ve been railroaded into the spend, spend, spend mentality & the one with the lowest credit card bill is a loser. Not a game I want to play any longer… judging by people’s anxious faces in the mall, I’m not alone.

So I think I’m going to re-think Christmas-yet-to-come (again!) and take a leaf out of other books from all over the world. We’ll start low, just with an Advent wreath at the start of the month, and build up slowly; the tree certainly can, and should, wait until 23rd at the earliest. I shall insist on at least one book all round for Christmas, too, although retiring to bed with it and a box of chocs probably isn’t practical until Boxing Day evening. It’s important to me that we don’t feel “all Christmassed out” by the 26th, as we so often have done; that there’s time for calm reflection, and there are genuine moments of holiness and sheer magic.  Time to listen to the rhythms of the earth and sky, hear the birds sing and the bells ring out.

And of course, time to wish all my friends “out there” a genuinely happy and peaceful Christmas – or whatever midwinter festival speaks best to you.

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An early tree…

Re-used, renewed…

December 6, 2017

My lovely mother is over 90 years old. She’s had a rough time of it for the last couple of years, since my dear stepfather drifted gently away. The first Christmas after he died, we had to “spring” her from hospital into a nursing home, possibly before she was really ready to come home but considerably after the hospital started trying to discharge her. The second, last year, she’d not long been out of hospital again, and had no heart for celebration; we did her a jolly little Christmas tree for her flat, but she didn’t want us to use the old family decorations, some of which are probably older than I am. “Too many memories,” she said wistfully. So I made some small-scale decorations from various odds & sods I had hanging around, and it did raise a little smile.

So this year, I took her our old fake tree, complete with the decorations we used last year.  Once again, she’s not that long out of hospital (the main reason I’ve been so quiet) & currently has a live-in carer helping her rehabilitation. But this year, once I’d festooned it with last year’s decorations, she said, “It’s hardly got anything on it! Be a darling & fetch the box from the top of the wardrobe…”

So the old decorations came out again. I had to be careful not to overload it, but I think she’d quite have liked to use every decoration & length of tinsel in the box. I caught her beaming at the tree when she thought I wasn’t looking, and she was rather chuffed when we spotted a helper at window of the nursing home opposite pointing the tree out to a resident. She may not be as well as she’d like to be, and still has a long hard road ahead  to regain her relative independence, but something somewhere inside is healing all the same.

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The Gumtree shed…

October 11, 2017

When we got our allotment, it didn’t take long to realise that a shed would be an enormous asset. The site is just under a mile away from home; close enough to walk up there, but not to run home to escape a shower. And that’s quite a way to carry tools; if we didn’t want to drive up there all the time, we needed somewhere to store them. In true Permaculture style, it would fulfill other functions, too; where we planned to put it, it could act as a partial windbreak, as we are in the southwestern corner of the site, where the wind whistles in over the river meadows, partially screened by a blackthorn hedge, but partly exposed. The roof would be a raised surface for capturing rainwater to store in our (wombled) water-butts, too.

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New allotment with an “open aspect”…

The maximum size we’re allowed on site is 8′ x 6′, on a slab base; no concrete, no decking. But we didn’t really want to give up that much growing-space, as our plot is an odd shape; triangular, with the hypotenuse facing south-west into the prevailing wind. We don’t have any power tools to store, just secondhand manual tools, so security wasn’t much of an issue. So an 6′ x 4′ wooden shed would be plenty big enough.

But a new shed would cost at least a hundred pounds, which kind of negates the money-saving aspect of allotmenteering, even if it’s a one-off investment. So I started looking round on Gumtree, allowing myself a budget of around £30, thinking there’d almost certainly be money to be spent getting whatever I found up to scratch. But most were far too big, and I kept missing the smaller ones that were offered. Except one, which was offered FREE as “might suit someone for firewood!” Half of one long side was missing, replaced temporarily by the door, but I went to see it anyway as it was only a few hundred yards away. Not great, but surely, salvageable… The lovely young couple giving it away had decided to replace it with something intact and also bigger.

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The Head Gardener surveys a pile of potential shed…

So we hauled it across town, the end bits, the door & parts of the framework inside my van, and the sides lashed to the roof-rack of the Head Gardener’s estate car. It sat for a week or so in a heap, beside where it was going to be put back together again, whilst HG laid & levelled the slabs. Then we spent a merry afternoon puzzling out what should go where, and screwing it all together; it had previously just been nailed. Some bits are a little rotten & have been replaced, and the roofing felt needed replacing altogether, and our allotment just isn’t quite the same shape as the ground it sat on before so the roof just wouldn’t quite sit properly, but hey! we have a shed, all screwed together firmly, and it hardly cost us anything!

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Oooh look, a shed!

It just so happened that a friend had recently had her conservatory roof replaced with something more permanent. It occurred to me that a piece of ex-roof triple-wall polycarb might just plug the gap in the wall and make a rather good window; Head Gardener moved the remaining slats down to the lower half, I cut the polycarb to the right length and lo and behold! it just slotted over the slats perfectly. Screwed into position gently, the windward side that looks towards the water-meadows actually lets the light in now.

The structure was probably never the sturdiest, and strong winds might have been an issue, exposed on the edge of the site. But HG had a stroke of pure genius; why not use some of the pallets that I’d wombled to make composters to brace the shed, inside the structure, instead? So there are three strong & heavy pallets resting on the floor slabs, screwed to the wall supports & each other, and acting as shelf supports & tool racks.

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A pallet serving as a brace and a tool-rack

There’s a triangular shelf made from pallet-wood at the end for all the things you might need a work-surface for, like potting, or making a cup of tea, and two shelves running across the end over that for all those little pots & tins of stuff we seem to need. Like biscuits…

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Pallet-wood shelves, and conservatory-roof window!

There’s a shelf at the bottom of the window; whilst it doesn’t let full daylight in, I think there’s enough light to start the odd window-box propagator-tray of seedlings in there. There are hooks and nails to hang small things like trowels, string, netting and dibbers, and I’ve even cobbled together a somewhat flimsy welly rack from an old curtain pole and a spare bit of wood. It’s not “finished” yet, in that we have yet to trim the roof felt, put up the “bug box” and add the guttering; in fact I’ve yet to source some of that. And it’s far from luxurious, and there are no gingham curtains or bunting (yet!) but we haven’t found a single drip of rain inside, and it’s stood up to winds that have brought branches down elsewhere in town. So, so far, so good!

 

 

 

Full of (very tough) beans!

October 7, 2017

So, it turns out that if you wander off on holiday for the best part of 3 weeks in September, your runner beans get very, very stringy & tough. The plants are still flowering, and the bees are still dancing round them, so I’m not ripping them up just yet, but I think they were basically under the impression that they’d done their job – loads of rock-hard stringy pods full to bursting of plump pink beans!

I had a “Bag For Life” full of them. I asked one or two experienced gardeners what I could do with them, but they shrugged; once you’ve saved your seed for next year (if you want to bother) all you can do is chuck them on the compost heap, apparently. But I was convinced there must be something I could do… so I brought them home and Googled like mad.

A couple of chutney recipes came up. I’m not a huge fan of chutney, but the household does contain one, so I made a big batch. Which used up nearly a quarter of the bag, and a whole evening; those pods really were very tough and razor sharp.

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Three-quarters of a bag of stringy beans!

This morning I woke up with a little revelation running through my mind; the pods might be beyond all sensible use, but the beans themselves might not be… So I spent a merry hour this morning shelling the beans, which was not as hard as I’d expected. If you pull the “strings” off, you’ll see that one of the resulting grooves in the side of the pod is deeper than the other. Sometimes you can split it open just with your fingernails; if not, run a sharp knife down that side & you can pull the pod open and remove the beans. No worse than shelling peas, or broad beans.

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I ended up with 2 pints of beans:

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I popped these into the slow cooker, along with 4 cloves of garlic, chopped up with two medium onions, half a large sweet potato, a quince, about a quarter of a very large courgette/zucchini, and a pint of vegetable stock. Two teaspoons of Ras-el-Hanout, one of salt, a sprinkle of freshly-ground black pepper and a heaped spoonful of coriander leaf/cilantro seemed about right for seasoning.

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After two hours on “High” I turned it down to “Low” for the rest of the day. On tasting it, I added some tomato passata, a dash of Worcester Sauce and some more salt; just before serving a sprinkled a little more veggie stock on it, too, as there still seemed to be a little something missing.

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I also mashed it a little, which seemed to absorb some of the stock, but left many of the beans intact. I have to report that it went down very well, with at least one “customer” coming back for seconds. I’m hoping there’ll be enough left to freeze some.

The pods have indeed gone into the compost heap, but not all of the beans made it into the casserole. Although I already have some seed saved for next year, and have bought (on offer!) another pack of the same seeds I used this year, it seemed unfair not to save a few more, after all the plants’ hard work!

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So hopefully we’ll be off to a flying start next year, and I’m not worried about producing too many now I know there’s something different I can do with them.

And for my next trick: finding something tasty to do with several giant, and I do mean giant, chemical-free pumpkins…