Saturday, 31 May 2008

Elderflower Fritters

The elder is in bloom this weekend in Cambridge, lovely sprays of delicate white flowers hanging down from the hedgerows. I was inspired to have a go at this old country favourite, which I haven't eaten since I was a child. You want to surprise your friends with something they haven't encountered before? Try deep-fried flowers. They taste a bit like doughnuts infused with elderflower cordial, except that most doughnuts don't have a handy stalk to hold while you eat them.

I didn't have a recipe, so just made a fritter batter and added some Castor sugar for sweetness. For those who want to try:

100g plain flour
50g Castor sugar
2 teaspoons of baking power
1 tablespoon of oil
1/4 pint of water (note how, like many Brits, I am incapable of consistent use of either metric or imperial)
About 8 heads of elderflowers, freshly picked on a sunny day for maximum flavour.

Mix the flour, sugar and baking power in a large mixing bowl, then gradually mix the oil and water to make a batter. Most batter likes to stand for a bit before use, so leave it well alone while you give the flowers a good shake and place them face-down on a plate. This is an important step, as it seemed to encourage all the insects to crawl off the flowers and onto the plate. Heat an inch or so of oil in a frying pan until it is really hot. Dip a head of flowers into the batter and fry in the oil until the batter has cooked through. Repeat until either the batter or the flowers run out. Place the cooked fritters on a piece of kitchen roll to absorb excess oil. Serve immediately.

Friday, 30 May 2008

The Eco-Friendly Way to Unblock a Drain

Drains! Exciting stuff, I know, but I feel the need to sing the praises of the good old-fashioned plunger. Yup, one of these beasties.

Our shower drain was getting very blocked, despite repeated efforts with bleach and caustic soda. A little known disadvantage of lesbianism is the effect that two sets of long hair can have on your plumbing (perhaps that's why so many dykes go for the crew cut). K was all for pouring about a litre or so of strong chemicals down it to dissolve the bugger away, but I was a bit worried that this might undo a year's careful efforts with the Ecover range. My father suggested plunging, and wouldn't you know it, we actually had a plunger tucked away behind the loo that I had never noticed before! Doesn't that say great things about the thoroughness with which I clean the bathroom?. It worked like a charm, and was totally chemical free! A bit more gross, to be sure, but then there is something more satisfying about a good energetic plunge than simply pouring some liquid down the plughole. Perhaps that's just me.

I'm sure that to many people this is a case of teaching the proverbial Grandmother to suck the proverbial eggs (can anyone tell me why Grandmothers suck eggs? If mine is anything to go by, it should be a case of 'teach your Grandmother to read the Daily Mail, buy clothes from catalogues and make rude comments about immigrants'). Still, I've noticed that many of my friends (OK, those friends I have discussed drains with, not actually that many) would immediately reach for the chemicals in such a situation. I'm going to become a drain-plunger evangelist.

Thursday, 29 May 2008

Making Yoghurt: Part 3

Here is the promised yoghurt post. The last attempt at yoghurt-making was a great success, so I wanted to set out clearly how it was (finally) achieved in the hope that it might be useful for others (and myself, because I'm not good at making notes), especially those who don't want to buy lots of special equipment and who are still aspiring to that large house complete with Aga, or indeed airing cupboard.

I used:

Two pints semi-skimmed milk, direct from the milkman
A small pot of Yeo Valley natural yoghurt, direct from Sainsburies.
A bit of double cream that had been lurking in the fridge for a week
A fine Norwegian thermos flask (I'm sure an English thermos would be perfectly alright)
A square of muslin from Lakeland, as overpriced as I predicted
A large measuring jug
A whisk
A sieve
A medium-size bowl

1) I heated up milk until boiling point, then let it cool until I could just about keep my finger in it and count to ten. Any skin that formed was just picked off (even though I hadn't really sterilised my fingers).

2) While the milk was heating, I boiled a kettle and swilled out the thermos with boiling water before replacing the top. It might not be a bad idea to sterilise the whisk as well if there is water left over.

3) I put tablespoons of yoghurt in the measuring jug and mixed it the with cream. To be honest I'm not sure what difference this made, but it did come out nice and creamy.

4) When the milk was at the right temperature I added first a bit and then all of it to the yoghurt-and-cream and whisked it up.

5) The whole lot was poured into the thermos and left for about eight hours until the evening. Voila, yoghurt! As usual it needed a bit of whisking to incorporate the whey that has separated. This was left overnight in the fridge.

6) The next morning, I lined the sieve with muslin, set in over the bowl and poured the yoghurt in. The only problem was that I had a bit too much yoghurt for the size of muslin, so it made a bit of a mess and couldn't really be squeezed to help the liquid out. This was left in the fridge for a few hours.

7) During my morning coffee break (it's great that PhD students can work from home), I opened the fridge to find that most of the whey had strained off and that lovely thick yoghurt remained!

K and I agreed that this was easily the best yoghurt either of us had ever eaten.There were only two problems. Firstly, the amount of yoghurt produced was not actually that much for a litre of milk, but to make more I would need to double all the equipment. Secondly, it is a bit time-consuming and we are not sure if we can go back to eating shop bought yoghurt now!

Friday, 23 May 2008

First crop!

I don't usually like to post more than once a day (smacks of heavy-duty narcissism if you ask me), but I couldn't resist showing off the first harvest from my patio garden. Behold the radishes!

They were absolutely delicious with some freshly-made bread and a hunk of cheddar cheese for lunch. Now all I need to do is grow enough wheat, barley and hops to make my own bread and beer, keep a cow for cheese, and I'll be self-sufficient in one of Northern Europe's finest culinary offerings!

Concerned about Cape Town

A bit off topic this. I had fully intended to write about recent (and highly successful) yoghurt making, but instead I wanted to put up this (taken from the fabulous South African cartoon strip Madam and Eve It discusses the whole problem of the current xenophobic violence in SA better than I ever could.

For those who don’t have a handy South African around to explain mysterious words and phrases (like pointing out that ‘Robot’ means traffic light and is therefore a perfectly reasonable word to paint on roads), ‘Umshini wama’ is the name of Zuma’s anti-apartheid theme song.

It means ‘Bring me My Machine Gun’.

Monday, 19 May 2008

Garden Chintz

I meant to add this to my last post, but it was getting too long. I spent much of Saturday afternoon in a state of some astonishment that the same garden centre where I bought Clovis the Coffee Plant was also boasting a range of Laura Ashley seeds, which do indeed originate with the famously floral clothing shop of the same name. They come in themed ranges with names like 'antique', 'classic', 'tranquil', 'harmony' and 'rustic' and are generally marketed as 'take your individual style outdoors', which presumably means that having been sold an 'individual style' by the shop, you can then eradicate any possible originalit..., sorry, disharmony, by bringing your gardens into the overall 'look'. I suppose it at least has the advantage that mothers will now be able to play exciting camouflage games with the kids without having to wear any unappealing shades of khaki. Just blend with the poppies!

Now aside from the incredible silliness of having a seed range named 'rustic' and the irritation of such overtly packaged and fashion conscious gardening, it strikes me as utterly hilarious that a clothing designer that made its name with floral patterns and chintz should now be attempting to export flowers from fabrics to gardens rather than, err, the other way round. Whatever next, painters of landscapes encouraging people to get out and look at the countryside every once in a while?

Because I can be a pretentious artsy student sometimes, it reminds me of a passage by the strange and brilliant Halldor Laxness in his novel 'The Atom Station'. 'When the peace of Autumn has become poetic instead and being taken for granted...when the last day of the plover becomes a matter of personal regret...the horse becomes associated with the history of art and mythology...the evening film on the farm stream becomes reminiscent of crystal...then the time has come for you to say goodbye. The world-bacterium has overcome you, the countryside has turned into literature, poetry and art and you no longer belong there.' And this is just about a girl looking at a stream! Goodness knows what he would have made of the seeds.

Horticultural Exotica

Saturday was a clearly a target day for community shopping in our charming neighbourhood of Cambridge. We live in the kind of area which attracts veg boxes, copies of the guardian, John Lewis delivery vans and children's-second-language-of-your-choice au pairs like bees to the organic honey pot. Local plant sales for charity are right up the collective alley, if indeed there were any alleys left that hadn't fallen victim to house extensions and garden landscaping. Jumble sales too, even if this one was organised by the local branch of the Labour Party (not so popular in the Lib Dem heartlands except among crusty elderly socialists, still wearing Soviet cap badges from the first time around). What more could a self-proclaimed self-respecting organic lifestyle enthusiast require?

Improbably enough, I ended up with a kiwi plant. I walked into the plant sale to discover most of the plants on offer actually required a garden rather than a series of pots. Except for this kiwi plant, which improbably enough was marketed as a patio plant. It looked a bit sad in its cardboard box, and plastic wrapper, and I'm a sucker for the proverbial puppy at the dogs home, especially if it has leaves. Still, I thought, I have enough plants, and not many pots left. Whither the courgettes, if I fall for the charms of a furry fruit like this, however plaintive looking? So I start to drift unobtrusively towards the door, when I wasaccosted by one of the formidable and hearty ladies of the Newnham Gardening Club. Think the kind of women who have been cruelly deprived by social developments of the the last eighty years of a large house complete with platoons of housemaids to manage.

'Not see anything you like?'
'...I'm not sure I really have the space...'
'Rubbish, you've obviously come here, you have to get something'
'It's for charity, you know'
'What have you got to lose? £1.50? tchah'.

Blackmailed by the eldery and well-spoken, I go home to look up kiwis in my fruit book to discover not only that most varieties required a male and female plant (fingers crossed for this one being self-pollinating), but that they can grow up to 30 feet, apparently being especially suitable for covering unsightly walls, pagodas etc. Not exactly my idea of a pot plant, but it's nevertheless sitting comfortably in one of my best planters, surrounded by a complicated frame of canes and wire. And it looks happy now.

To complete a day of horticultural silliness, I also bought a coffee and cinnamon plant at the garden centre. Apparently if I look after the coffee plant for three years, it may actually produce beans. I have named it Clovis, after the first Christian king of the Merovingian Franks, because I actually am that much of a geek.

Saturday, 17 May 2008

Healthy Eating

We get an organic veg box. In fact, because we are SO community minded, we actually share a veg box with D&Z next door (the larger boxes are much better value for money, so sharing is a good way for impoverished young folk like us to enjoy a veg box without drowning in turnips every week). My cooking has certainly become much more creative in the last six months - I'm not really much of a recipe person, so I tend to just throw whatever looks good together and serve with carb-of-choice. This may have led to some impressively awful meals, but they have at least become fewer over time.

Anyway last night it was my turn to cook as K had Scouts, so I poured myself a fortifying g&t, and opened the fridge to discover some broccoli in need of eating. What would go well with broccoli, I wondered to myself. Toasted cashew nuts with broccoli sound tasty, add the tomatoes that have been sitting in the fridge for a week, serve on rice and hey presto. Surely a nutritionist's dream! It was only a shame we didn't have any bulgar wheat.

K came home around 8pm. The following exchange ensued:
'Hello! What's that you're cooking?'
'Ah! Broccoli in tomato sauce with cashew nuts on rice!'
We looked at each other. A moment of perfect understanding passed between us.

Half an hour later, the pizza delivery man was knocking on the door ;-)

Monday, 12 May 2008


K and I have a dream. A dream that one day we will actually have some land (instead of just a patio) to grow most of our own food and keep a cow, some chickens, maybe some bees and sheep. Well, a lot of people have this dream, but I've been brought up by my down-to-earth rural parents that it's no good just to be a dreamer. We are aware that currently we don't have the faintest about keeping cows or making hay and that we are unlikely to find the time to go to agricultural college any time soon. So, in the interests of being more than just dreamers, we have a new hobby - organic farming. Thanks to the lovely people at WWOOF (that's Worldwide Workers on Organic Farms, for those who don't know), we've got in touch with Fen End Farm - an organic farm about six miles out of Cambridge whose owners are happy to have some extra pairs of willing if unskilled hands every other Saturday. So far we have helped put up fencing, fed cows, shovelled shit and de-thistled a field! Currently, I can't look at a thistle without wanting to charge at it with a spade.

Credit for this wonderful idea must go to K. We've actually been members of WWOOF for about a year with the intention of using it to have a working holiday one day (preferably somewhere scenic with hills), but we hadn't managed to find the time. A month or so ago, however, K read an article in the newsletter encouraging more people to be 'weekend wwoofers' and so build up more skills over a longer period of time at one farm. Apparently the organisation began to encourage people to do just that, but it has increasingly become orientated towards those looking to travel, so that people are more likely to go and work in the Andes for a month than they are to go and help the farmer down the road with his lambing. Long-distance travel is all very valuable, of course, has great potential for the exchange of ideas blah blah blah, but runs the (all too familiar) risk of ignoring what is going on in your own backyard. Cambridgeshire may not be very sexy (or hilly, for that matter), but it is where we live. If only it had a few more hills...

The Many Uses of a Bean Frame

This weekend was gorgeous in Cambridge, so I got most of the veggies either planted out or potted on (at least until I ran out of small pots). On Saturday afternoon I finally built a frame for my beans (and then promptly ran out of canes). Within half an hour it looked like this:

We really don't have that much room in the flat!

Friday, 9 May 2008

What's Growing?

I've nearly finished planting out all my veggies for the summer, so I thought I've give a brief summary of what it is I'm actually trying to grow without a garden. Currently most of them are either in module trays on the windowsills or in small pots after being potted on last weekend.

Tomatoes: I planted six seeds each of three types - tumbling toms, vine tomotoes and centiflor tomatoes. The vine and centiflor types came from the wonderful so I'm keen to see how they do, especially the centiflor which is apparently a new type of tomato. I was going to have hanging baskets on a stand, but decided that there wasn't room, so the tumbling toms will probably end up tumbling down from in pots on a wall. All the seeds germinated, although some have grown much quicker than others.

Aubergines: I planted six seeds, all germinated.

Courgettes: Six seeds, all germinated and going strong. God only know what I am going to do with that many courgettes. Last year I sold all my spare plants from a trestle table on the street, so I might try this again.

Patty Pans: I got these from Real Seeds for Kirsty, since I've only ever seen these in South Africa. All three seeds have germinated but took AGES and are still in the module trays.

Mange Tout: I know these are best planted in situ, but I started off six indoors in an attempt to stagger my pea crop. They rocketed up - we could barely plant them out fast enough. I've planted more seeds in the bed.

Beans: Six 'Cherokee Pole Bean' seeds from Real Seeds planted indoors, four germinated. I think I was just unlucky but with the two that didn't sprout. I planted a few more in spare modules and these have grown really quickly, except for one, which was put outside in the sun too early and shrivelled up.

Ridge Cucumbers: Three planted inside, all doing well and have been potted on.

Radishes: Two rows planted out, all doing well and are already starting to show their second set of leaves.

Lettuce: I planted out two types of lettuce from Real Seeds in the bed. The seedlings came through really quickly, but as usually I scattered the seeds too thickly so I'm going to have to do some very careful thinning.

Spring Onions: I planted two types in medium sized pots back in March. Despite being rained on, attacked by unseasonable hail storms in May and covered in a layer of snow for several days in April these plucky little seeds germinated at the first sign of sun and are doing well. I planted these too thickly as well. Clearly a lesson for next year!

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Patio Garden

As suggested by the description of this blog, I don't have a garden. This might seem to be a problem for anyone aspiring to even a modicum of self-sufficiency, and I have to admit that yes, it is. I got pretty hooked on vegetable growing last year when Kirsty and I lived in a house with a big garden, but we moved into our own place last September, and given that Cambridge is fairly pricey in property terms (and all other terms as well), this is a flat, albeit a flat in one of the nicest parts of town. I toyed with the idea of trying to get an actual allotment, but investigations suggested that there were long waiting lists for all the plots within a reasonable distance of town, plus the nearest one doesn't even have a water supply. Even if allotments were more readily available, what I really enjoyed about vegetable growing was being able to potter out of my back door and into the garden in the morning and evening. Inspecting radishes at 7am is better for the soul than any amount of gym and jogging. Somehow the thought of having to tramp halfway across town didn't have the same appeal.

One of the things that really sold the flat to us, however, was its big patio, so this year I'm trying to convert said patio into an 'urban allotment'. So far I've got two big raised beds (courtesy of which have been transformed into large containers thanks to a liner, and a modern (read: plastic) version of the old-fashioned Victorian strawberry planter, plus innumerable pots and planters. The whole thing has not been cheap and requires many trips to Homebase for organic compost, but we've justified it on the basis that it's both my main hobby and a good opportunity to learn to be skilled veggie growers so that we stand a better chance of being able to achieve real self-sufficiency in a few years time.

I might try and put a picture of some sort up soon, but right now I better get to the library. What passes for my 'real world' calls.

Monday, 5 May 2008

Making Yoghurt: Part Two

I had another go at making yoghurt, but alas with less success. This time I put in a bit more of the starter culture, using my last attempt at yoghurt rather than a bought pot. I also kept the milk a bit hotter than before - apparently the temperature is all important because yoghurt bacteria don’t like much above or below 50 degrees centigrade (it goes without saying that I don’t have a thermometer for kitchen use, so instead I just stuck my finger in). Whatever I changed, I shouldn’t have. It still was definitely yoghurt (so thumbs up to my DIY starter culture), but it had separated into curds and whey. I tried mixing it back together, but it still had a grainy, cottage-cheese-like texture of curds, but without actually being nice. Back to the drawing board with the yoghurt.

Research has suggested that I may have left it too long (for which I blame the Saturday morning lie-in), or that the proto-yoghurt may have been too hot when I put it in the Thermos. Perhaps I should invest in a thermometer. I'm thinking a trip to the cookware shop is necessary in any case to track down some muslin so that I can strain my next attempt at yoghurt. The only snag in this otherwise simple plan is that Cambridge is the type of place where the only purveyor of such goodies is Lakeland, meaning that everything is good quality but costs about four times as much as I think I should pay for it. I may have lived in Cambridge (pop. over 100,000) for nearly six years, but I've never quite got used to the fact that household items are both more widely and more cheaply available in my parent's rural market town (pop. 4000). Bloody southerners.

Saturday, 3 May 2008

Making Yoghurt: part one

I have a new toy. It’s called ‘The New Complete Book of Sustainable Living’. It contains many wonderful things, with sections on how to build your own cowshed, what to look for in a healthy pig, how to spin flax, etc etc. One of the many wonderful things is a nice large chapter on making your own dairy products. This looked good, I thought, for households like ours which inexplicably manage periodically to accumulate a vast milk surplus despite a) getting the same amount of milk each week and b) not having a cow. I quickly skipped over all the stuff about making cheese, since there is no way that a cheese press and four gallon copper pot will fit into our kitchen (although for the interested, there are instructions on how to build your own cheese press at Yoghurt, on the other hand, sounded more promising.

My first investigations into the world of home-made yoghurt were marred by the fact that the author of this book, along with many writers, assumes that you have somewhere where the yoghurt-in-process can be kept warm at a constant temperature for about twelve hours. I suppose this could be done in an Aga or airing cupboard, but we don’t have either of those. In fact, I think an Aga might actually be larger than our entire kitchen. Thanks to the internet, however, I discovered that some very clever people have realised that a normal thermos flask will keep milk warm just as well as an Aga. All you have to do, I learned, is to sterilise a thermos with boiling water, boil some milk, let it cool down a bit, add two tablespoons of live yoghurt, and leave the whole lot in the thermos overnight. Easy!

Anyway, the results weren’t half bad. The yoghurt hadn’t thickened as much as I’d hoped but it was definitely yoghurt. It rather reminded me of the kind of pouring yoghurt or keffir that you get everywhere in Scandinavia and which I used to put on my muesli when I lived in Norway. That suits me fine, since I greatly miss the wide range of tasty dairy products peculiar to Scandinavia and would be delighted if I could make my own. Still, I would like to make a thicker yoghurt, and maybe add some fruit or honey. I’ll have another go once I’ve drunk this batch.


Where does one start with a first blog post? Let's dive in and hope everyone gets up to speed eventually. First however, I feel it's only polite to provide a quick dramatis personae (and possibly also a glossary; I do tend to use too much Latin).

Me - I prefer not to describe myself, since it's much more interesting to let people work it out for themselves.

K - my lovely, long-suffering, sun-deprived South African partner. Marginally less crunchy than me, but very tolerant. Has a real job (three, actually) and aspires to cow ownership.

My Parents - they live in North Yorkshire, but are always on hand to provide a vegetable-growing-troubleshooting hotline.

Emily Pickles and Brian - their cats. Since I live in rented accommodation and can't have a cat, these will have to do. Emily has just had kittens :-)

Z - The Australian next door. Also aspiring to an organic lifestyle, she has more uses for vinegar within the home than I ever thought possible.

D - Zoe's husband. See above comment on 'long-suffering'.