Tuesday, 30 September 2014

September blessings

I have a few half written posts waiting for me to finish, but felt inclined to post some pictures instead, which tell a bit of a story of the last few weeks. Some 'exciting' highlights include....

Freshly foraged oyster mushrooms on toasted brioche. (Had a bread shortage that day) OMG it was soooo delicious! Despite the exceptionally dry weather and parched ground, I spied the mushrooms on a shady log. Within 10 minutes I had got them home and fried them in some butter for my lunch. Since then, I have been walking the dog round all my mushroom spots in the hope of finding some more, but I think that will be all until it rains. My friend pointed out that I could always buy some oyster mushrooms from the supermarket to sate my cravings, but where is the fun in that?

Continuing on the simple food theme, I have been making roasted tomato sauce, which is a perfect base for pasta dishes or the beginnings of a delicious soup. It is based on something I saw Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall make in his River Cottage series, but it is always popular in our house because it gives a much sweeter sauce.

Put a variety of tomatoes in a roasting tin. The cherry tomatoes are home grown and the larger tomatoes are from the market. Stab them with a knife. Sprinkle them with salt, pepper and olive oil and pop in a medium hot oven. You can add herbs, onion or garlic too for a taste variation. I used a few sprigs of thyme. When it is cooled, whizz it up with a stick blender and season to taste.

I have also been blessed on the egg front too, having received a regular supply from a friend (Thanks Jo and girls) who keep their own hens. Aren't these the most beautiful coloured eggs ever? Anyone for Green Eggs and Ham? Her children even decorate the boxes :-) Could eggs get anymore fun than this?

We have green woodpeckers locally, but it was still a surprise to find this one perched on the tree just outside my kitchen door. You can just about make out the green body in the centre on the quick snapshot I took.

The house in the background has had PV panels fitted too - so many have been fitted in our area this summer! I am glad people are taking advantage of this incentive to reduce their energy bills and carbon emissions :-)

And finally here are two cakes I have made this summer to use up spare courgettes. The first is a recipe from North West Edible Life. Erica batch bakes this cake, so I had to reduce the quantities to a third to make just one loaf and there was still enough mixture left for a dozen buns.

It should have been doomed to failure, as I also had to calculate everything into metric units, so there were plenty of opportunities for mistakes. But it was a success. A very delicious, grown-up cake which works well with a carrot cake type topping.

My youngest daughter refused to try it because the mixture looked rather disagreeable and the cakes had green flecks in them, so there was no denying the courgette content. I have frozen individual slices that can be de-frosted as a quick treat.

The second cake was a chocolate cake by Not Just Greenfingers. Actually it should be a traybake, but as we had some strawberries and cream in the fridge it became a rather large layer cake at the last minute, with a crocodile smile! This was more successful with the kids, mainly because the courgettes were peeled and grated finely so no green lumps! It was a very moist chocolatey cake, but still incredibly light and fluffy. It didn't last long.

I have frozen some grated courgette and will definitely be making these again, so thanks very much for the recipes ladies :-)

Friday, 19 September 2014

No result

Oh well. Maybe we weren't ready for the earth-shattering event that a 'Yes' vote would have entailed.

No leaflet

It is still an eventful occasion. A few days ago the desperate Prime Minister of the UK, has pledged greater devolvement of power to Scotland. This is great for Scotland, but it will also have repercussions throughout our political system. For instance if Scotland can make a lot of their own decisions, should they still be able to have an influence on the rest of UK too?

What if they scrap the 'Bedroom' tax in Scotland, just as an example. Should the Scottish MPs still be able to influence the government's decision on these things in the rest of the UK? If not then it changes the balance of the current parliament, as there are a higher proportion of Labour MPs in Scotland, giving the conservatives more influence in the UK Government. This may make it more likely that England and Wales will keep the 'Bedroom' tax.

All this in the run up to the next general election......

And out of interest, how many of you had a discussion with friends, neighbours or even a stranger on the bus about the Scottish vote? It has really grabbed people's attention and everyone seems to have had an opinion. It seems there is a sense of community in talking about possible division :-)

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Scottish Referendum for Independence

It is only a matter of days now until the Scottish Referendum takes place. This is a momentous occasion when the people of Scotland get to decide democratically whether to be independent once more.
I have to admit that I have not paid much attention over the last few months, being English, and the decision clearly being one for the Scots to make. That was until I saw this headline "Scottish independence: Cameron, Clegg and Miliband make Scotland 'No' vote plea" on the BBC news website. (For those unfamiliar with British politics, these 3 are the leaders of the main political parties. But Scotland also has the Scottish National Party, which are the voice for independence.)

I haven't even read the article, but just the headline made me realise 2 things. One that the Scots Look likely to vote the way I expect them to - for independence. I always had the impression that they were dragged kicking and screaming into this 'United' Kingdom. Weren't they defeated at the Battle of Culloden and forced to accept English rule? My history is not great, but I am sure that there has been some mistreatment along the way. Even ignoring the history, they are outnumbered by the English 10:1 which means voting-wise they have a much weaker voice as part of the UK.

The second realisation is that the establishment is scared. Scared that Scotland will vote 'Aye' and become independent. The Prime Minister is in a desperate bid to influence Scottish voters, and is pulling out all the stops. Threats that food prices will go up are the latest.

Why is the PM so desperate now? This referendum has been on the cards for months, so it comes as no surprise. Maybe the PM was cocky enough to think that there was no chance of Scotland voting yes, so he has been stunned into action by the polls, which show the voting will be very close. Personally I think the PM's desperation has more to do with international pressure.

For one thing if Scotland becomes independent following this referendum, then surely the referendums held in other countries should be recognised too. Crimea thinks so. So does Catalonia. Who is to say that Texas won't be next at declaring Independence? In fact the Scottish vote for independence could trigger people to make their voices heard all over the World.

I like the idea of a referendum. It is giving people a choice about their future, when most decisions are made out of our hands. Like going to war.....it would be good to hold a referendum on that. Instead our PM can take us to war without allowing the MPs to vote on it, let alone giving the public a say.

Just as a reminder David Cameron's party received only 36% of the votes at the last election with a turnout of only 65% (10,703,000 votes out of 45,597,000 possible voters is only 23% overall). With less than a quarter of the voting population supporting him, I don't think he should have the power to decide to take us to war. Do you?

And I mention war, because it is very much on the cards right now. Even the Pope is talking about World War III. The decision seems to have already been made, but the UK government are looking for something that will persuade us to support them. Crying out 'Weapons of Mass Destruction' doesn't work any more.

If Scotland choose independence, it could complicate the UKs position in NATO and any plans for going to war in Syria or Iraq. This could delay or even prevent our involvement, or an escalation to WWIII.

So I have decided that I am a supporter of Scottish Independence. What about you?

Friday, 12 September 2014

Tomato ripening experiment

Last week at the allotment my wonderfully healthy looking tomato plants suddenly showed signs of blight. Drat and blast! I madly grabbed all the healthy but very green looking tomatoes from the plants in the hope of salvaging some of my crop.

At home with several carrier bags full I took stock. Part of my mind was swimming with thoughts of the Ebola outbreak that was on the news. By putting all the tomatoes together in one carrier bag, was I condemning the healthy tomatoes to contract blight too or was it just spread by bodily fluids through the stalks of the plant? Would there be an uprising from the healthy tomatoes once they realised they had been quarantined in bags, condemned to watching the other tomatoes slowly die or dying themselves?

Back to the tomatoes. First I sorted through all the tomatoes, removing stalks and tops and checking for the slightest speck or imperfection that may indicate blight. Even perfect tomatoes with blight on the tops got put in the contaminated pile and wrapped together in mass newspaper bundles to be binned.

The remaining tomatoes were washed and dried.

Then I decided to experiment. There is so much advice about the best way to ripen green tomatoes. I recently read it isn't the light or heat, but ethylene emitted by ripe tomatoes that encourages the other tomatoes to ripen. Ethylene is also emitted by bananas apparently. So I divided my tomatoes up. The first tray was left open on a sunny windowsill. The next bunch I wrapped up in newspaper with a banana skin. Wrapping meant no sunlight but would hopefully keep the ethylene from dispersing. It may also be slightly warmer than the open tray. The third batch was wrapped with a whole ripe banana (slightly more wasteful than a banana skin).

The fourth and fifth batches were just tomatoes wrapped up, but one had just green tomatoes in the photo above, whereas all the rest of the batches had some orange tomatoes included. The final experiment was to put some of the tomatoes in a glass jar, so that they would get sunlight, warmth and ethylene...in theory. Any guesses which method worked the best??
The photos below show the results after a week. The jar failed. None of the tomatoes ripened at all and the moisture caused a few to start rotting. The batches with the banana and the banana skin both showed very little sign of ripening either.

Even the batch of only green tomatoes that were wrapped had ripened more than the ones with the banana!

So much for the ethylene theory. But the batch that ripened the quickest were the ones that were open on the windowsill. You can see how green they were on the windowsill here....

.... and how they had ripened a week later below.

The photo doesn't do it justice though, because we ate the ripest ones through the week, so there were even more ripe ones than shown. There were also still a few blighty ones in each batch too that were removed.

I'll admit it is not entirely scientific and hasn't covered all variations of tomato ripening that are possible, but really - just leave them open on a windowsill :-)

Monday, 1 September 2014

Ashby Castle and Resilience

It has been the summer holidays and we have had our share of nice days out. Last week I visited Ashby Castle with my youngest daughter and her friends. You may be able to make them out at the top of the tower.

Ashby Castle is an English Heritage site. It is basically a ruin, but what remains is immensely fun for kids. There are the grassy slopes of a sunken garden and lake, which are great for rolling down or running around.

There are ruins with grand doorways and hidden stairways, brilliant for hide and seek or toy sword battles. The 6 storey tower with it's spiral staircase gives a grand view of the surrounding area too.

But absolutely the best feature is a secret underground passageway running from the base of the tower to the old kitchen cellars. It just gives an extra element of authenticity and fun to imaginative battle games to storm the castle.

Now some of the visitors will be wandering round with an audio guide, but we just spread out a picnic and let the kids imaginations run wild.

When my youngest daughter was about 2, we came with some friends - about 13 kids in total. The boys were all dressed up as knights and kings with swords and shields, and the younger girls as princesses. It was the most amazing day! It is such a shame that they have grown up.

This time was a much quieter affair and I sat looking at the walls of the tower. They are incredibly thick. The wall above is twice as thick as the doorway.

The tower was built in 1470 and designed to withstand attacks. The thick walls were a big investment of labour and resources, but the intention was to build something that was resilient and would last for generations. As it was, the tower was blown up in 1648, but it was so well built that the remaining half of the tower that you see above, has stood for another 360 years and could well last another 360 more.

I was sitting on a picnic blanket reading a section from Green Wizardry by John Michael Greer on 'Sustainability and Resilience'. His point was that efficiency is about getting the most from the least resources, whereas resilience is the opposite. Resilience is about having spare capacity or using extra resources to make things that are stronger, longer lasting, and can absorb shocks. In the case of Ashby Castle the time, energy and resources invested in those strong walls, was intended to protect the people inside and is the main reason that they are still standing for us to enjoy today.

Here is an example of some homes built in the last couple of years. To me they are so ugly. But they are very efficient. Look at the shape - they are almost square. This gives the biggest internal area for the smallest area of external walls. In other words it uses less bricks than a fancier shaped house. The ceilings inside are low to reduce unnecessary height and brickwork. And the roof has virtually no overhang to save on tiles, which would otherwise provide some shelter from rain to the brickwork and shade upper windows in hot weather. It is also a very shallow roof slope, again being efficient with materials, but not allowing for any deviation in the weather that could bring a heavy snowfall.

The buildings are 3 storeys high to minimise on the footprint, and in addition the garden is tiny, so being very efficient with land. Just in case you don't realise how short the garden is, I was walking along the path one day, when the occupant opened their back door and threw a burnt slice of toast over the back fence. Just a toast toss between backdoor and fence!

There was really no need to be so efficient with space in Loughborough. This is the edge of a small town, not a city centre, but then maybe it is better to squeeze all the ugly buildings in tightly so as not to spoil the view too much.

The council negotiated an 11 acre open park area as part of the development deal, which is great for me to walk my dog round, but it adjoins an existing park area of a similar size, and it is not widely known about. So these ugly houses have been built with virtually no space to grow their own food, dry their washing, or room for their kids play. Yet the open playing areas are too far from the houses and too empty of people to be safe from stranger danger, so it seems the kids stay at home instead.

There is no large lawn to mow for weekly exercise, or flowerbeds to attract bees and insects. No room for trees or ponds to encourage wildlife and back garden ecosystems. Yet the council, with their funds becoming tighter, now has the burden of an additional large open space with grass to cut, bins to empty and borders to maintain on a regular basis. There are no allotments in this ward either!

The really wasteful thing is that these houses probably won't be here at the turn of the next century, so it is a false sense of efficiency. It is not just because they seem flimsy compared to a large part of the UK's building stock which is built pre-1940. But because they are ugly, and who wants to maintain and care for an ugly house?

The homes below are cheap and cheerful houses from 100 years ago. Efficient terraced housing with small gardens. They were built to save space and be close to amenities, as people walked most places in those days. However the little attractive features, such as the decorative trim at the eaves, the curves around the windows and doors, and the symmetry all add to making them more appealing and helping them survive. The rooms have additional height to make them feel more spacious and the bay window makes them feel less 'square' and brings in more light. They may not have un underground tunnel, but were built with cellars.

It is funny because even the 1950's council houses were solid and built to last, and they provided a reasonable garden. During a time when the country had a large war debt to pay off we were building with some resilience. At some point since then resilience has gone out the window. There is clearly a lack of balance between 'lean manufacturing' efficiency (otherwise known as cheap and cheerful 'Noddy' homes) and a need to build in resilience so that homes are fit for the future.