From bunk beds to raised beds…

June 18, 2020
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Missy, Norma & Daisy inspect the “new” raised bed

It’s been an interesting few weeks… I’d have liked to document the Covid-19 lockdown – not that it’s over yet – but somehow hadn’t the heart for it. And I’ve been pretty busy, despite not being able to do my usual markets, fairs & festivals, or visit my family; the allotment suffered a fair bit of neglect last year, thanks to my less-than-ideal health, so there was some very hard work to put in over there; I never, ever want to see a creeping buttercup again. Luckily the weather was excellent so I could just head on over there & get on with the job. And there was lots of fun to be had raising seedlings!

It was very difficult to get hold of seeds for the things I’d run out of, because after the Great Loo Roll & Pasta Panic of 2020, the next thing the general public around here did was strip the garden centres bare before they had to shut their doors. The big online seed companies didn’t seem to know what had hit them & many only “opened” their websites for an hour or so each morning, in order to try to keep up with demand. However, the gardening magazines came to the rescue with packet after packet of “free” useful seeds; not always the varieties I’d have chosen, but there when they were needed! And some of the less well-known seed sellers – smaller companies, or enterprising individuals, mostly on Ebay – helped me acquire the things I really couldn’t be doing without, like Red Russian kale & Orelia courgettes.

I don’t have a greenhouse (sore subject – I should have one, having paid for one that was allegedly in stock back in April, but there’s no sign of it yet & no word from the vendors despite many queries, although they still seem to be trading) so most of this year’s seedlings were raised in half a small dilapidated polytunnel, which was bought in a panic to house my bantams in during the Great Bird Flu Panic. The cover was in bad shape, having been cut to make roll-up “windows” to keep the birds well-ventilated & healthy during their confinement, but the frame is OK (as we’re only using half of it) & I managed to roll & tie the damaged cover so that it basically did the job.

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The “half-baked” polytunnel

It’s all well & good raising seedlings to go into the allotment, but we may be unable to access our crops if we get a localised total lockdown, which I believe is a distinct possibility as the epidemic progresses. So I wanted to create some space somehow in our small urban garden, which is already pretty full of fruit & nut trees & bushes, roses, day-lilies, a wildlife pond, a 6m chicken run, bantams, a small lawn, 3 cats and all their friends, & what seems like several acres of drying washing. A small raised bed running alongside the chicken run seemed like a good idea, until I priced them up & realised that, complete with a kit to make a cover, a necessity with free-range bantams, we were looking at £150 & I still had to put it all together myself.

So – what had we got that might be press-ganged into doing the job? An inspection of the lengths of wood lurking in the garage rafters yielded 4 x 2m sturdy pine “planks” that were once the sides of our elder boys’ bunk beds, a number of rickety pine shelves & some sturdy bits of 2×2. There was half a pot of green stain to take the edge off the orangey colour of the varnished pine, and plenty of long screws & staples left over from reconstructing the Gumtree’d freebie shed at the allotment. I did need to buy some heavy-duty ground cover to line it, and some butterfly net to make the cover, plus some compost to top off the home-made & reclaimed-from-dead-pots stuff underneath, but altogether I’ve spent less than £25. It won’t last forever, but if it does us until next Spring, I’ll be happy and so will my plants. Then if we’re staying put for another year (we’d like to move to somewhere with a bigger garden) we might invest in something a little sturdier.

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A pumpkin flower in a wombled cold frame, and borage for pollinators – and Pimms – at the allotment.

Supermarket mayhem…

March 12, 2020

She was standing by her empty trolley, impeccably suited, subtly made-up & sleekly-coiffed, clutching her shopping list, with tears trickling slowly down her face. Our local W8rose had run clean out of pasta this morning; the shelf was utterly empty. And rice, and noodles, and tinned tomatoes & passata, corned beef & tuna, bread flour, yeast & sugar, all except the exotic, expensive varieties. To be honest, there were plenty of alternatives like bulgur wheat available, but rationality had fled and sheer blind panic set in. Her blank, tear-stained face will stay with me for a long time.

I’m not completely unsympathetic; poor woman, evidently nothing in her comfortable life had prepared her for this. And she may only have had an hour to “get everything in” before giving a vital presentation or chairing a meeting. The reality of being “let down” by one’s ubiquitous upmarket grocer brings home the reality that there is something going on just now that many people are somewhat poorly-prepared for.

One of my daughters works at another local supermarket which has been mobbed for the last couple of weeks. Regular customers who normally do a £100 weekly shop are spending £300-£400, ransacking the shelves of what they perceive to be store-cupboard staples, like crisps and energy bars. Out of curiosity, I looked up bulk noodle & rice supplies on Amaz0n, and watched the available deals vanish before my very eyes; I’d see a deal considerably less favourable than I’d find in our local oriental supermarket, click on another for comparison, go back to the first & find it had sold out, literally seconds after I first saw it.

I’m not worried for ourselves; for many years, I’ve been a “prepper” in the sense that I’ve kept a good store-cupboard & always had some non-perishable food & flavourings on hand that we could survive on for a number of days if for some reason, like having ‘flu, being snowed in, or having broken a leg, I couldn’t get out for a bit. That just seems like common sense to me. When something runs out in the main larder cupboard, I open the one in the store cupboard and make a note to buy another ASAP to replace it, making sure stuff is rotated and used up well before it’s best-before date when possible. It isn’t always possible, as demand fluctuates, but in general we don’t end up throwing stuff out, and sometimes it even saves us money. But that hasn’t stopped people gently laughing at my “Armageddon Cupboard”…

And that’s one of things distressing my daughter; knowing that a lot of the stuff that people are rushing out to buy will probably be wasted in the end, as they won’t have, or will run out of, the things that make bland staple carbs like rice & pasta interesting, or they just won’t need or use it at all until it’s out-of-date. Also that many people are buying much more than they could possibly need to last for a couple of weeks, because they’re used to daily or, at most, weekly shopping and have no idea how much stuff they actually get through. Not much thought is going into their panic-driven lists; they’re racing to snap up things that a) they don’t usually buy or use and b) there’s no known shortage of in this country, but that someone’s mentioned on Faceb00k.

People are getting left out. I’m not so worried for the lady crying in the pasta aisle, though that’s a shame. But for the pensioners who can only get there once a week, with just an hour before the bus back home leaves, who find the shelves empty. For the food-banks, whose donation boxes are conspicuously empty. For those elderly or disabled stuck at home, dependent on carers & meals-on-wheels deliverers who may themselves have to self-isolate. For those who have no storage, living in bedsits, or worse still, no home at all to keep stores or self-isolate in. And what about those on zero-hours contracts, who will have no money to pay the rent or buy food with if they need to take time off sick?

This is a mess. Those nominally in charge don’t appear to have a coherent plan of action & seem to be more invested in minimising economic damage than in making sure all of their citizens are as safe and as well as can be. They’re leaving it up to us to prepare ourselves, and not everyone is in a position to do that, or has the time or the skills, or even the inclination. And it’s up to the supermarkets to ration supplies or not, as they choose. If things do get really silly, all we can do is try to look after any vulnerable people we’re aware of, making sure they do have food to eat at least, even if it’s just a bag of tins (provided they have & can use a tin-opener; not everyone does or can) or packets left on the doorstep & a thumbs-up through the window. Phone your elderly relatives, if you can’t go & see them, so that at least they have a tiny bit of social contact, and phone them back every day if you’re the only voice outside the gogglebox that they’re hearing. Skype or FaceTime them, if they can manage that.

Oh, and please don’t bet your health, and everyone else’s, on it “not being any worse than the ‘flu”…

Hands-on stuff…

February 2, 2020

The dark evenings and winter chill made me determined to finish the small rug/shower-room mat that had languished on my big twining loom since last spring was sprung.

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Our new shower mat – still needs a little tidying up!

That, plus the fact I’d agreed to run a little workshop on the subject of “simple forms of weaving” for our Guild’s Skills Day at the end of January. I got stuck in and finished the shower mat within a couple of evenings – it’s now in use – and warped the loom with torn-up sheets ready for the workshop. My “students” seemed to enjoy themselves and between us we did several inches of  a new, full-size rug in warm shades of brown, orange & light green, still ongoing here at home. However, during the day, it did occur to me that it would be good to have some smaller looms available for people to learn the technique on and hopefully complete something small but useful within a day.

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New rug under construction!

So I started looking around for some suitable wood, ordered a batch of beechwood pegs and raided a DIY superstore for eye-bolts, wing-nuts and stainless steel rods, as we also needed to buy a sander for our younger daughter’s latest project. (Which is possibly THE most expensive way of acquiring eye-bolts, all beautifully but individually packaged & priced to match!) We did have some old bed-slats in the garage roof, but eventually I decided that they were too wide to handle easily and too shallow to fix the pegs into securely. Then my eye fell on a batten that had once held a 6′ wide Roman blind… although it’s technically a soft wood, it proved to be very sturdy and quite hard to drill into, so I think it’ll stand the strain. So I chopped it into 18″ lengths, bolted those into a square, then drilled holes & inserted the pegs along the top & bottom. Once I’d sorted out a way to fix the rod down the side – random washers & wing nuts to the rescue – I had a slightly eccentric but entirely workable loom.

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Home-made 18″ twining loom

However it took me a couple of days, on & off round Real Life, to weave an 18″ square, which made me think it’s a little too large for what I was aiming at. So the next construction project will be a 12″ version. In the meantime I’ll be weaving a new top for a little old footstool, not to mention working on a set of matching chair pads for our mis-matched kitchen chairs. And then – I might just go 3d with it and maybe try a small basket to keep yarn in?

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A footstool in need of a twined makeover…

That’s one way to make a dent in my fabric stash! And there are plenty of others…

Putting a resolution into action…

January 4, 2020

Last night I woke with a start at 2am, as a random thought suddenly clicked into focus. I’d wondered a couple of times lately why the elderly chest freezer in the garage, which I’ve been meaning to defrost for months, had been switched to “super”, so I grumpily kept switching it back to normal. Maybe one of the girls needed to cool something rapidly & forgot about it? Maybe one of the cats trod on the switch?

No. In the dark of the night I realised that it was so iced-up it was running constantly, on “super” because normal just wasn’t maintaining the temperature any longer as warm air leaked in around the iced-up seals. So defrosting it suddenly leapt to the top of my “to-do” list & first thing this morning I was out there, hauling the contents out & stuffing them into a vast assortment of cool-boxes and insulating wraps – mostly old wool blankets. Luckily everything was still absolutely solid.

Then it struck me; oops, I had no idea how long some of the contents had been in there. It was high time for a good sort out… This freezer’s been great at keeping things very, very cold, but it is reaching the end of its expected life & showing the strain somewhat; I should be running the contents down & saving up ready to replace it within the year. So whilst it was defrosting enough to scrape the rest of the built-up ice off gently, I ran down to the market and invested in a notebook.

As stuff went back in, I logged it. I thought I only had a couple of packs of meat or fish in there; actually, there were 20-odd items. There’s cheese and butter. I thought I’d used the last of our home-grown beans up over Christmas, but there were 3 more bags in there. I’d completely forgotten the bags of grated golden courgettes, intended to bulk out soups & stews. There’s enough apple & pumpkin in the bottom to sink a battleship, and several bags of roasted butternut squash chunks. All of it carefully, lovingly & organically grown…

There’s no huge rush to use up the things I know only went in there a month or two ago, especially not as we still have trays of wrapped apples and several large squashes to eat up first. And the meat, not to mention the cheese, will see us through the next couple of months with very little need to visit a supermarket; the idea will be to use something from the freezer every other day at least. If I had a New Year’s resolution at all this year, it was to use up stuff that we already have; admittedly I was thinking of fabric & yarn, but it works across the board really. Here’s my chance!

Some of the other things had definitely been in there for longer than I cared to remember – raspberries, blueberries, & blackberries from 2018 or before, all of them market bargains or foraged from the hedgerows.  So I decided to make “Freezer Jam” with them, rather than let them go to waste.

I weighed the bags of fruit, then an appropriate amount of sugar – a little less than the total weight of the fruit; I don’t like my preserves too sweet – then chopped up the very last of this year’s quinces, hoping they’d provide at least a little pectin to set the jam. I chucked it all into my preserving pan & let it all melt down together. At this point I realised that some of the “blueberries” were in fact sloes, so had to stop & push the whole lot through a colander to remove the stones. But the taste was really gorgeous; deep, dark & tangy, well worth the extra work!

So now we have 5 full-size jars and 2 small ones of “Freezer Jam”. And yes, it seems to be setting just fine. When I made the Medlar jam, I said I hadn’t expected to be making jam in December. Well, I really hadn’t expected to be making it in January too!

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That said, there’s a bag of Seville oranges in the conservatory awaiting my attention…

Wishing you all…

December 24, 2019

… some calm amidst the mayhem, some things to smile at, some to laugh at, a chance to be merry, a chance to rest, a chance to create, enough to eat & drink, and special people to share it all with.

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Happy Christmas! 

I’m going crackers…

December 21, 2019

Having just finished dealing with the less-than-perfect apples, and making a batch of delicious medlar jam, I’ve found myself plunging headlong into Christmas again, about 6 weeks before I’m likely to be ready for it…

I’ll add more later, but for those of you, like me, bewildered by how time suddenly seems to speed up as the year turns towards its end and new beginnings, here’s the home-made cracker tutorial I promised you – about a year ago!

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Enough already!

November 2, 2019

I’m shattered. We’ve been lucky enough to have had a wonderful apple crop from the two big trees (an elderly Blenheim Orange and a Russet) this autumn; I remember worrying in Spring that it wasn’t getting pollinated, as I couldn’t see any bees on the blossom. However a couple of months later the kiwi fruit plant was humming with pollinators, so loudly that you could hear them from the road, so they are still out there somewhere.

IMG_3767 A huge apple crop is a mixed blessing; they need to be dealt with as soon as they fall, especially if they don’t have a soft landing, as many of ours don’t, and circumstances just didn’t allow that this year. So a young friend’s pigs benefited from quite a few sacks of windfalls.

We’ve filled all our wooden apple trays, and the freezer’s bursting at the seams. Some have been dehydrated, and many turned into chutney or a base for other jams. Those neighbours who didn’t see us coming in time have been issued with carrier bags full. The garden’s littered with windfalls again and I still have a big basket of undamaged hand-picked apples to process. It’s amazing how many interesting apple recipes there are out there to try; Toffee Apple ice-cream is a new favourite! But the best news is that the windfalls have attracted a hedgehog back to our garden, after several years of not seeing any evidence of them.

So the arrival of a large crop of tree-quinces too has not been greeted with unalloyed joy, delightful though they are! We had just started picking them – they’re usually a little later than the apples – when a gale hit last weekend and brought most of them crashing down. They may have been ready, but I wasn’t! Believe me, quinces are much harder than apples to peel & chop, even assisted by a food processor. My hands are aching! But the taste of Quince, Pineapple & Rosemary marmalade makes it all worthwhile… And I’m almost out of re-used jamjars again, despite a kind friend donating 3 large bags full.

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I’ve been up to some interesting projects over the summer and will post more about those shortly. I’ll also do a d-i-y Christmas Cracker tutorial, as promised last year. Now the evenings are dark again, I can mysteriously find time to sit at the computer again, rather than going for lovely long walks at the riverbank!

 

 

Denim strikes again!

July 20, 2019

Recently my little van needed to spend some time in “dry dock” having a spot of surgery. When I emptied her out – well, mostly – I was struck by the sheer amount of junk I’d been carrying around, particularly in my “beach” bag which used to hang over the back of the front passenger seat. There certainly were things appropriate to last-minute dashes to the beach – we live 20 minutes drive from Sandbanks, and it’s always pleasant to spend a sunny evening down there, usually on a whim – but also things I might need when I’m running the stall or doing a car boot sale. One or two tools, some for the van, but some in case I should come across an elderly sewing machine in distress. And a number of miscellaneous items I can’t imagine I’d ever need at all! All tangled up together so that I could hardly ever find what I actually needed & knew was in there somewhere

So, it was high time to rationalise, and tidy things up a bit. I had An Idea… our local recycling firm have recently opened a warehouse-shop where they deposit most of the rejected textiles they collect; some items (brand-new-with-tags, “quality” and “designer” stuff) are sorted onto hangers, which they charge a bit more for, but mostly you fish about in builder’s bags & pay 50p per item. I already had a fair bit of reclaimed denim, left over from making quilts & other things (including the old beach bag) but knew I wouldn’t have enough of the bits I needed for this job, so I popped down there & rescued 5 pairs of jeans to chop up.

A bit of cutting, twenty minutes or so of stitching, a bit of “chenilling” round the edges just because it pleases me, a quick wash, and lo & behold, my van now has pocketses! And there were still some pockets left, so I made another, different set to string across the rear of the back seat too, from headrest to headrest, to carry things that aren’t used so often but are still useful to have on board. With a bit of thought, I could have included a “secret” pocket in the front one, or one big enough to carry maps, but I’m happy with the result.

Now, of course, I have 10 cut-off legs, some waistbands, and some side-seams to stash away for the next Idea-with-denim that drifts my way!

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Following on…

June 20, 2019

… from “Another Cautionary Tale” where I acknowledged that many people are – somewhat cautious – about buying second-hand supplies and equipment, I’ve recently had a classic example come exploding into my own life. I was cruising our local charity shops looking for a little black cardi with ¾-length sleeves when I spotted something interesting hiding on a low shelf. An ice-cream maker… one of the very best makes, a Gaggia Gelatiera, not new but obviously not much-used, at about one-tenth of the original cost. PAT-tested, and that shop will refund without a fuss if things don’t work properly.

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Raspberry Sorbet under construction!

On a list of all the kitchen gadgets that are simply not necessary, ice-cream makers must come close to the top. But long ago I blew up my trusty Kenwood Chef, terminally, trying to make ice-cream, because I love good ice-cream, made with fresh ingredients that I can actually spell. We’ve made it a few times by dashing out to the garage, where the big chest freezer lives, and whisking frantically every now & then, but somehow we’d never achieved the smooth creamy deliciousness that I craved. I did consider saving up to buy a machine, but it certainly wasn’t a priority – and oh boy, did we need to prioritise! – and most of them didn’t make nearly enough for a family of seven plus the odd guest. I wanted one which did the whole job, rather than one where you need to freeze the bowl in advance; I knew I’d never be organised enough to put it in in advance, and if I left it in the freezer full-time, it used up space that could have been used to store food…

But now there are only four of us at home full-time. There’s a bit more space available, and I’m lucky enough to be in a position where I can frequently get brilliant bargains on fruit, thanks to our local market. So I barely hesitated; at that price, it had to be worth a try…

It’s wonderful. We’ve made loads of ice-cream & sorbet, and are about to start on the frozen yogurt. The web is a fantastic resource; there are loads of recipes out there, but most have to be adjusted to the size of our machine, which can only handle 600ml of contents at a time, though it came with two spare bowls & paddles, so we can always do several batches, one after another. So far we have made Stracciatella, Chocolate, Strawberry, Strawberry & Prosecco, Gin & Tonic, Cherry, Cherry & Mascarpone, Pineapple & Mango Sorbet, Raspberry Sorbet, Blood Orange & Star Anise Sorbet, & Kiwi Sorbet, many of those more than once! Kiwi sorbet is the only one that hasn’t been that popular, and I think I may try a different recipe next time I can get about 20 kiwis for £1.

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A batch of Cherry Ice Cream ready for the freezer…

Last Sunday I was given, for free, a huge bag of very ripe cherries “for your chickens” as my favourite greengrocers were starting to pack their stall down. About a quarter of them were “going over” and did go straight to the chickens (who love them) but the rest were perfectly acceptable provided I could use them up swiftly. Luckily I have an old tool for removing the stones from olives; it also works on cherries. I froze a large tray of them for future reference, gave some away, made another batch of cherry ice cream, and turned the remainder into jam, along with a few strawberries that needed to be used up, the next morning. The ice-cream has been stashed away in the big freezer, and hopefully one winter’s evening it will tickle our tastebuds into believing it’s summer once more. That said, there are lots of autumn/winter ice-cream recipes out there (blackberry & apple, quince & pear, lovely spicy things) and we’re beginning to get confident enough just to try things out for ourselves.

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So there you are; sometimes a secondhand bargain can let you try something out which will turn out to be well worthwhile!

 

One person’s patina…

June 9, 2019

…is another person’s dirt!

I didn’t rush to the Minster’s annual Fair yesterday. Having been unable to trade for the last six months, I have a backlog of stock to shift before I can start acquiring new pieces for my customers’ delight & delectation. But I couldn’t quite resist the lure of the bric-a-brac stall, and who doesn’t need a look through the secondhand books? You never know where you’ll find hidden treasure, even when you’re half-an-hour late…

I looked at it more than once; a little old – ladle? pot? measure? – with a long handle which looked as if it might be brass. It was mostly black and quite revoltingly greasy to touch; there was a space on the tabletop around it where other people had removed items but left this well alone. It looked as if it had spent the last 50 years in someone’s garage, accumulating a heavy coat of engine oil. But the feel was more – many years of chips, bacon and burgers – i.e. heavy kitchen grease, which is a bit more amenable to cleaning than engine oil.

“I think that’ll clean up OK,” I said as I handed over my 50p. The man behind the stall looked shocked. “But won’t that destroy the patina?” he asked, without a trace of irony.

From my point of view, there’s a big difference between patina – the honourable dings, scratches and scars of everyday use, the subtle sheen from years of handling – and sheer filth. And what’s right for an old oil-can that has spent years on a dusty garage shelf is just not appropriate on a culinary tool. People are simply not going to buy something to display (or just possibly use) in their kitchen, café or bar that looks and feels filthy, however “authentic”. I hope I’ve managed to clean it up & do it justice so that its cheeky-but-competent character shines through, along with that lovely coppery glow.

I can’t help wishing now that I’d taken a “before” picture so it would be obvious why no-one else had spotted this sweet little old handmade beauty, but here it is after half an hour with a toothbrush, a tiny quantity of 00-gauge wire wool, a cleaning agent intended for human skin, an Irish crochet hook and a lot of gentle scraping with a human thumbnail… It isn’t going to earn me a fortune, but it has earned a little place in my heart.