Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The white stuff

Chocolate Chip Cookie And Milk
Chocolate Chip Cookie And Milk

The picture about milk is changing. Its a product that is used by many of us and is a main ingredient in our kitchens. Most families in the UK start their day with cereals covered in milk, drink milk and have endless cups of tea with milk. Is the daily cuppa threatened? I grew up with milk being an essential part of my diet as it was an easy way to obtain calcium and nutrition for growth.

Milk's primary use is food for young mammals and yet as humans we are an exception in that we continue to consume milk beyond infancy. Genetically we are probably not designed to deal with that and in fact many of us become lactose intolerant at some stage in our life.
Humans are an exception in the natural world for consuming milk past infancy. The sugar lactose is found only in milk, forsythia flowers, and a few tropical shrubs. The enzyme needed to digest lactose, lactase, reaches its highest levels in the small intestines after birth and then begins a slow decline. In normal circumstances, babies would be breastfed and then continue with some form of milk until weaned. Milk is used to make butter, cheese, yoghurt, kefir, condensed milk, powdered milk, milk chocolate etc.

The wholesaler is faced with a dilemma that requires some action. The amount of dairy farmers walking off the farms and selling up is increasing ( which in term will mean less production locally in the UK) and at the same time, transport costs and labour costs are increasing regularly. This means that their profit margins are being squeezed and as such they will be putting the prices up soon. The increase here is going to be 5 p per litre which is the equivalent of a 5% price rise. One of their reasons for putting the price up is that they want to continue to pay a fair price to the remaining farmers to ensure that productivity continues and stops the tide of farms being sold off. That is a positive as the alternative to keep up supply is to import milk from other countries which only adds food miles to stand still.

The law of economics states that if a demand is greater than supply, the price goes up and if demand is lower than supply, then the price comes down.

Since 2 out of 5 in this household are lactose intolerant and actually allergic to milk products, we have made changes and the results have been noticeable. We also have far fewer plastic milk bottles to take to the recycling plant. It is a personal choice.

If you want to avoid a 5% increase in the price of milk out of your budget you could simply cut out 5% of your milk consumption per week. That could easily be achieved with cutting out 1 cereal breakfast per week or drinking black tea or black coffee. As an alternative to cereal, try porridge made with oats and water, eggs,toast or a fruit smoothie. If you want cereal, muesli is quite tasty with fruit juice or water.

A price increase in the raw ingredient of milk will also push up price ultimately of butter, cheese and all products that have milk in it.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Downshifting revisited - the tipping point

Words to Live By: Believe by Debbie DeWitt
Words to Live By: Believe

January and September generally are months in which I reflect on the directions we take and look back on what has happened.

The economic climate at the moment is a difficult one, almost like a house of cards tumbling down. As an individual there is very little I can do about that apart from watching in the sidelines and staying strapped in on the roller coaster of events. If you have recently been made redundant remember it is not personal, do not feel a victim but use it as an opportunity to change track.

What follows are some of the principles that guide my decisions:

1. Stop buying - it sounds almost too easy but one of the major changes in this household has been to establish what our buying patterns are, why we buy, what we buy and how we can simplify that scenario. Example, I had a fetish about black trousers. 15 pairs were in the cupboard and at the same time I would still go and buy more. I had no idea I was doing that but I now own 3 pairs and rotate them. When one wears out I can buy another one. No impulse buying. Buying also does not mean new, it could be freecycled, second hand, eBay and new as a last resort if all other options fail. This action means you don’t need to earn as much, to buy as much, instead you can focus on living. Before you buy anything check whether it is in line with your downshifting goals and values.

2. Figure out what you can do now - can you develop your garden, declutter and sell stuff on eBay, get an allotment, can you afford to work less than 5 days a week, can you explore the library, start cycling, or learn a new skill? Look at what you have, what you need and address the balance.

3. Change what & how you eat - start supporting local markets and farmers. Better nutrition leads to less dependency on sugar and quick fixes to keep energy levels stable. If you visit the library you can read up on the subject and make changes. A food diary helps to establish why and what you eat. Our motto in the village shop is to encourage local producers and sell as much as we can that is locally produced in the county.

4. Change how you travel - can you reduce the amount of time you spend in the car? Check out alternatives : walk, cycle, share transport, get a bus, or more drastically check why you are travelling in the first place.Live locally and explore what is happening within 5 miles from your home, or whatever distance you can cover on foot or bike.

5. Imagine what people did 20 years ago and try to bring in some of those same activities and ways of living into your home. Write letters, visit people in person, join the library, go for walks in the park, grow your own vegetables and fruit or help someone who has a large garden and share the produce, play cards, play board games, read books, knit, sew and learn skills from others, have a social drink at your local pub and get acquainted with the your neighbours.

6. Look at what you need and redefine what you want. Create a plan of where you want to be to enable you to reach your downshifting goal. Some people are lucky, they bought when the market was lower and have enough value in their home to downshift significantly within a short period of time. If that is not the case for you or not possible in the economic climate, redefine what space you need, how much it will cost and whether you need to change location to make it happen. There are huge price differences within the UK with regards of property prices, rentals, jobs etc. If that applies to you ;do your sums, what do you need, how long will it take?Maybe share your space with others and create an income that way. Share resources.

7. Think about what you want to do when you downshift and learn how to do it now. Do you want to be a self sufficient smallholder, then volunteer at a farm, even a city one. Start gardening, using any spare time you have to invest in yourself and the skills you may need in the future. Do you want to make all your presents and gifts? Then start with what you can do and sign up for a class if you need to; you will meet other people and share enthusiasm and skills. Many classes are subsidised.

8. Don’t try to change too much too soon. Take one step at a time, the small impact leads to other more natural steps. There are people who moved jobs, countries etc in a very short period and found it very hard. Try to downshift at home, where you are now and explore possibilities. It took 2 years for us to realise that there was no need to burden ourselves financially, that we could live in a different way and then made plans to make that happen.

9. Do what you need to do while in the city or while in your country while you can. It may not all be immediately possible but you can take charge or your home, your health, your well being. your nutrition and live differently.

10. Downshifting can be more that just moving. It is about personal growth, changes within you, a change of direction, a change in what you thought you were doing and what ultimately what you want to do in line with your values and expectations. It is about changing yourself so that the changes you make can be reflected in the world we live in. If you stop buying factory produced chickens then ultimately, they will produce less and look at alternatives. The reason currently banks are collapsing is because they shared the belief that property prices would rise eternally and that the risks of lending to people who could not afford it would give them a win win situation. The people would be paying over the odds and then when the house was repossessed, the banks would cash in. It was about profit.

This is the real tipping point, we have been downshifting voluntarily and now need to share what we have learnt with those who face it head on as they are forced to deal with the crisis heading their way.

Believe that it is possible and you will find crumbs on your path to show you the way.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Rudyard Kipling - IF

Cover of Kipling's Histoires Comme Ca by Rudyard Kipling by Joseph Rudyard Kipling
Cover of Kipling's Histoires Comme Ca by Rudyard Kipling


If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
But make allowance for their doubting too,
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream--and not make dreams your master,
If you can think--and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings--nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much,
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And--which is more--you'll be a Man, my son!

--Rudyard Kipling

Tainted sweets

Miao Baby Wearing Traditional Hat, China by Keren Su
Miao Baby Wearing Traditional Hat, China

Tampering with natural foods is again making headline news with melamine being found in sweets and baby milk in China. This has resulted so far this week in 13,000 babies being ill and some deaths.

Is it possible that food production and the manipulation of food is making us ill, not only polluting the earth but polluting our bodies and creating diseases?

Melamine is used in making plastics and is high in nitrogen, which makes products appear to have a higher protein content.

Health experts say that ingesting small amounts does no harm but sustained use can cause kidney stones and renal failure, especially among the young. ( BBC)

Over the past few months we have changed food intake to local, organic and sourced resources. This has made a great difference to the way we feel. It is clear to me that the foods that are very popular and where demand outstrips supply leaves an opening of exploitation. Profit then comes first putting people and the planet at risk.

Can we change anything about this.....as consumers the choices we make influence the buying power of shops.

The rollercoaster ride continues. How many more babies need to die before we see the bigger picture?

Friday, September 26, 2008

Planning for spring


The beginning of autumn always signals a dying of of plants yet at the same time, there is great scope to plant seedlings for spring colour as well as winter foodstuffs.

Today I planted :

violas and pansies
spring cabbages and broccoli plants ( 5 of each)
lambs lettuce
arctic lettuce ( the name may live up to expectations? maybe not)
winters purslane ( green salad)
corn salad
land cress
wild rocket
globe artichokes

Wallflowers will be interplanted with tulips.
In line with permaculture principles I have underplanted the pear tree with a redcurrant and blackcurrant bush, daffodil bulbs on its canopy line and interspersed 3 artichoke plants grown from seed. That will leave room at the front of the border for primroses to provide some colour.
The principles are fruit tree against the wall with tall artichoke plants underneath. The daffodils come out and provide a barrier for pests and the leaves die down when the tree comes in leaf providing a mulch. The bushes and flowers in front bring blossoms at three levels and different times so that insects can pollinate one or the other.
That is the theory and I shall have to see whether in practice this really provides a self sufficient pollinating and mulching haven. Guess we will find that out next year.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Strawberry plants

Strawberries are grown in tubs with a four year rotation. That means that 4 years ago I started with 3 plants in 1 tub. In September I layer the baby plants ( see new one where the cat is) and when it shows some roots I plant it in a pot still attached by its cord to the mother plant. When it has taken in about 3 weeks I sever the connection and then have small strawberry plants to plant in a tub later on or early in spring.

The little strawberry plants are not encouraged to make fruit in the first year, but to grow into healthy plants.
The second year they fruit and produce babies.
The third year they fruit and produce babies.
The fourth year the fruit is lower in yield and the plants are put on the compost heap or planted randomly at the edge of the garden in case they produce some more.
The tub is cleaned, new soil put in and new baby plants put in.

This system allows for 3 tubs with active strawberry plants in a sunny spot in the garden.
Make sure you net it in the spring when the fruit is set ( I use horticultural fleece) so the birds do no eat the crop. Sufficient for topping on cereals and ice cream ( if you spot them before the children).

Friday, September 19, 2008

Cat and mouse

Sooty and Magic the two cats that board here have been roaming the countryside over the last week and brought home a variety of things to eat. Not a day has gone past without a present on my carpet: its a red carpet and the odd feather can be found after they have devoured their prey. I do feed them plenty and have given them collars with bells on numerous occasions only to find that they lose the collar and bring me another offering.

A few days ago, a baby bunny was laid out on the carpet; we have released about 6 in the past back into the wild. The adolescent squirrel had the cat puzzled; is it a rat, a mouse? Even the dog looked at it and walked away.

Yesterday a tiny little door mouse got caught by the cat but as it was not moving the cat seemed to have got bored with it. We finally cornered it in a flowerpot and released it, putting the cat inside first. No mole though.......they know, they know.....cats are not stupid.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Autumn glory

It has simply been a most wonderfully sunny day today to capture some pictures of where the garden is at the moment. The vine has now been sufficiently trained to give a window through to the edible garden which from above looks like a pond full of lilypads. Cucumbers trail still from the bed and celery is aplenty. We juice them in with carrots and apples or cut them up and serve them with hummus. The grey slate gravel laid down gives a nice background to the green leaves and the flowers too. Shame a mole has decided to dig it up in places, but there you go, always encouraging wildlife.

I love colour and usually I would say that orange and pink are not a first choice but the honeysuckle in bloom currently not only provides a lovely scent but the colours are breathtaking.

I am growing some polyanthus and primroses as well as wallflowers to plant out for spring colour. Sometimes, a nice cup of tea, knitting in hand with a view of the garden is sufficient to bring hope in a turbulent world.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

From little acorns....


In the long history of humankind, those who have learnt to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed. Charles Darwin.

The financial markets are in turmoil at the moment. We knew Monday brought bad news as both the Times and Telegraph failed to arrive with the 6 am delivery. This usually means that breaking news has to be rescheduled and the papers reprinted before delivery. At 8 am the newspapers hit the stand with the news about Lehmans bank filing for insolvency.

Unless you are directly employed by the companies involved, the shock of the news is likely to abate just as much as a pebble being thrown in a pond. However, the ripple effect works outwards and as the shock impacts on the stock market, investments may be affected as well as mortgage rates in the next few months. With basics going up, investments rocking badly, and confidence shaky, its time to fasten your seat belt.

We have noticed changes in the shop too. People are using coins more, drawing more cash in hand from the cash machine and very reluctant to part with a £ 20 note. Children are emptying piggy banks and the town centres are showing shops for sale, to let and a less than healthy footfall.

Internet shoppers are sending their wares back to the companies and generally cutting back.

There appears to be a need to prune back, sometimes severely back to basics so that a new framework can emerge. Sometimes, underneath severely pruned bushes, a tiny plant lies dormant, starved of sunlight and warmth awaiting its time .When the conditions are right, it will grow upwards and bloom.

White you fasten your seat belt and you ride the roller coaster ride at the moment, while branches crash down and substantial pruning takes place, look for the acorn which in time will create another strong oak. All is not lost and we can start again.....

Monday, September 15, 2008

Sheep insulation

Winter Sheep I by Diane Pedersen
Winter Sheep I

Loft Insulating Materials

Mineral fibre or fibreglass matting is usually available in rolls 400mm (16in) wide. Thicknesses range from 100mm (4 in) to 200mm (8 in). In the UK, the total thickness of insulation should be at least 200mm (8in), the thinner insulation material available allow for old, thinner loft insulation to be overlaid to achieve the 200mm. Roll insulation can usually be installed without professional help.

Loose-fill loft insulation materials which are blown into the loft are usually mineral wool or cellulose fibres, installation is a specialist job which should be left to a contractor. The materials generally have the same insulation value as rolls of loft insulation and should have a minimum finished thickness of 200mm (8in) - most roof joists are only 100 to 150mm (4 to 6 in) so some means of increasing the depth of joist may be necessary.

Loose-fill loft insulation materials, such as vermiculite and mineral fibre, are sold in bags and can be poured between the joists to the recommended depth. They are easier to install than the matting if there are awkward corners or obstructions in the loft space. They also make the job easier if the joist spacings are irregular or not suitable for a standard width of matting. Again, the depth of the joists may need to be increased so that the required depth of cover is achieved.

All of the above are man made and use toxic substances which means that handling them and breathing their fumes in can be harmful. Is there an alternative?

I am quite prolific at spinning and knitting the wonderful fleeces that sheep provide us with. Here in the West Country, Jacobs sheep can be found roaming on the hillside and I absolutely love their fleeces. To keep warm I have made socks, hats, mittens, scarves and blankets for next to nothing money wise as the fleeces can be obtained on freecycle.

Thanks to Christa's comment my memory got activated about a company called second nature that produces loft insulation from sheep's fleeces. The benefit is that it is not only safe to handle and breathe around this material, but it can be cut, torn and stuffed into small unusual places.

So maybe the loft hatches do not need to be changed.No grants for this material but I am going to be a lot happier having non toxic materials in my loft.

Sometimes the obvious is the simplest answer: How otherwise can sheep withstand very cold icy temperature?

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Father Peter's helpful suggestion

Father Peter's environmental notes left such a useful comment that I wanted to share it with you. Father Peter has some excellent contributions to make so do visit his blog.

We live in a small cottage that is about 350 years old and luckily was not listed. When we bought it 20 years the property was almost ready to be condemned and I rebuilt it over a two year period as sympathetically as possible.

All the internal walls (with external faces) are false and insulated and the loft spaces are insulated between the rafters by 5’’ of fibreglass at 45 degrees, so equalling 7 ½ inches. The insulated hot water tank was given a jacket on top of the insulation; this is heated by the open wood burning fire in the winter and ½ an hour of off peak electricity in the summer. I am obsessive about draft proofing as this seemingly minor item can make a huge difference. We have just had double glazing fitted and I only wish we could have afforded this years ago. The oil fired central heating has insulated pipes between the boilers and radiators with thermostats on each radiator; these are turned low in rooms that are not in use. The house now has windows that face south, there were none when we bought it, and with the fire on and (when it shines) the winter sun, pouring in the heating rarely comes on.
We discovered a lot in the rebuild, that the kitchen area once held animals, that there were two families living in the house, and, when I removed the wall that covered the bricked up chimney in the living room, an inglenook fireplace with some parts of the old cooker remaining!

Saturday, September 13, 2008


The government announced this week that it will pump money into energy saving schemes such as insulation. If you have not had the opportunity to look into doing these improvements to your home, then it may be worth checking out any grants you can get towards these.

Personally we did apply and were successful in receiving a grant for draught proofing but as with everything, the doors became so tight that one of them fell of its hinges which caused us to need to do other repairs. The loft insulation was not completed on the grant because we have loft hatches that are too small for the rolls of material. Secondly, our ceilings are made of lathe and plaster ( a very old way of doing ceilings) and letting the workmen loose on it could have just given us another opening to the roof as lathe and plaster can crumble. So that work is on hold until we can get hold of a local craftsman who can carefully deal with the 16th century plasterwork.

Don't let that put you off,if you live in a more modern house, it will be a piece of cake.

Insulation can be considered in the following areas :

  1. Loft insulation: Prevents 15% of heat lost through the roof.
  2. Tank and pipe insulation: A hot water cylinder jacket of at least 75mm cuts heat loss by 75%.
  3. Cavity/solid wall insulation: About 30% of heat lost through walls. Homes built after 1920 - with cavity walls - can be injected with insulating material. Older houses with solid walls can be fitted with an extra layer.
  4. Double-glazing: Can cut heat loss by about 50%. The two panes of glass create an insulating barrier.
  5. Draught-proofing: About 20% of heat lost through poor ventilation and draughts. Measures include fitting brushes to letterboxes. Source: Energy Saving Trust
If you have an older property like ours, you may need to make adjustments as the construction methods from yesteryear do not always lend themselves to modern measures and listed buildings would have restrictions placed on them with regards to improvements.

When we visited Thomas Hardy's cottage in Dorset some time ago, we were reminded that small cottages were inhabited by many people who heated one room and spent the majority of their time, wrapped up in front of the fire.

I will let you know how we cope with the cold as it creeps in over the next few months.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Magenta cucumber

Cucumber Seed Packet
Cucumber Seed Packet

If you go hunting down between the leaves of the cucumber plants, you can often find a gigantic, monstrous specimen that is going to be difficult to turn into pickle or anything else. In a throwaway society you might well chuck it on the compost heap but here we have found a way to give the cucumber a new lease of life whilst releasing its fantastic minerals and goodies into a magenta beverage. Don't be put off by the ingredients, its quite nice for a vegetable juice.

Get that juicer out and add :

2 apples
1 cucumber
1 beetroot

The colour is quite neon like and just think of the potent minerals and vitamins that will be coarsing through your body. The juice will give you an instant 2 of your 5 a day, is good for detox and brilliant skin. A straw to sip it helps.

Oh and wear gloves when you cut the beetroot, it bleeds.....

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Charging an ipod with an onion

Scientifically speaking, funny but true.


A winter tipple in the making and maybe your next weekend project?
Our village is full with octogenarians and beyond and even the gravestones mark 93 years, 94 years so there has to be something in the air. The secret I found out, is a regular tipple in the winter.

I have been writing a small article in our village magazine over the last few months and people have began to bring in produce as both gifts and challenges. Can I do anything with it? Will I share? I love these impromptu gifts of appreciation ( at least that is the spirit in which I receive them). They could just as well be a last resort for a glut of produce, but I am happy either way. The garden at the shop produces a small amount of food and I am only too pleased to take on surplus from our excellent local gardeners.

Today, a box of damsons arrived. Hmm, damson jam, damson jelly, damson cheese.....hold on, damson gin that sounds a bit more like it. As we recently cleared the large sweet jars from the top shelf they seemed the perfect jar to start with. Its easy really, you need gloves, a toothpick, a jar, sugar and gin. You prick the damsons, put them in the sterilised pot, add sugar ( as you go) and top up with gin. Stick in a dark cupboard for 3 months. Visit every few days to shake the jar and in 3 months time, when all the sugar has melted you will be left with a lovely liquid.Strain off the damsons, pour the alcohol through a funnel into a dry warm sterilised bottle and seal. Just an ideal home made present for Christmas. A more formal recipe follows :

Damson Gin

450g of damsons
710ml of vodka or gin
350g caster sugar

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A poison tree

A Poison Tree, from Songs of Experience by William Blake
A Poison Tree, from Songs of Experience

Its been a while, and I have missed you all. Its been a time of reflection, busyness and wondering where we go from here.

Health wise there have been some challenges a bit here and bit there and the reason why I have not been participating in the blog is simply that it would have been too depressing. Surprisingly, the weather joined in in the doom and gloom by producing the wettest summer since records began and the economic climate seemed to take a nosedive too.

So here is the olive branch.....

I will be posting again regularly but probably not daily. The focus is going to be on eating local, growing local and continuing to simplify our lives.

The shop has grown from strength to strength and has been a roller coaster ride: 9 months so far, sleepless nights at times but we have at last mastered an acceptable rhythm.
The house is still under construction and repair as is the garden. At times we have felt overwhelmed with it all, but all in all, it is all taking shape.

I'll start sharing soon, that is if you are still reading.......