Meating up

We are very committed to supporting local producers. We buy hardly anything from supermarkets anymore,  choosing instead to frequent local shops or buy directly from farmers and growers. It makes sense in terms of sustainability and supports the community – socially and economically. When it comes to meat, however, there is another major reason for buying direct from producers – we can be sure that there is good animal welfare.

Over the years, we gradually moved to buying mainly organic meat, but more recently we have started trying to source as much as possible direct from small producers who are happy to allow their customers to visit and see their production methods directly. Many such producers are not registered organic, but are low-input and high welfare and, unlike larger producers, happy to answer questions about their systems and pleased to have engaged customers.

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good to find a decent producer

And so yesterday we found ourselves on a hillside up above Abergavenny with Martha Roberts and The Decent Company pigs. We met Martha at a smallholders’ gathering last year and decided that her approach was just what we wanted from a meat-producer. So, when she announced that her latest pork was available, I asked if we could come and collect some in person and see the pigs. What a joy it was to meet Nancy, Winnie, Minnie, Dora, Madge, Margot, Wilbur and the growers, plus Polly and her (unplanned) piglets and see them enjoying a free-ranging life amongst the trees and grass… not to mention mud.

We learnt a great deal about pig behaviour and it was a delight to witness them exhibiting it – rooting, rolling, nesting, squabbling, snuggling up together. Most of Martha’s pigs are Gloucester Old Spots (or crosses thereof), but the wonderful Madge is a Mangalitza. Part of me balks at cooing over piglets that I know are destined for the table, but they have a good life and would not exist at all were it not for their meat value. It feels right, to me, to meet my meat and accept the implications of eating it.

So, we had sausages for breakfast this morning and we felt very grateful to Martha for her hard work, high standards and allowing us to learn what goes in to producing the food on our plates.

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the end-product

By the way, I highly recommend Twitter for getting to know small local producers – many of them have accounts and post often about their animals, crops and products. Martha Tweets from @martharoberts and this link should take you to her account even if you are not a registered Twitter user.

A kale tale

At this time of year I start to be rather unenthusiastic about one particular crop, namely kale. It’s a great thing to grow – it provides fresh greens all through the winter from just a few plants and, when freshly picked, it is tender and delicious. But, it goes on for months and so eventually the novelty does wear off.

Yesterday, however, I was inspired. I had made bread rolls and had defrosted some of the delicious pulled pork that I cooked for the winter solstice; I picked winter salad leaves from the garden, made mayonnaise using eggs from the hens and opened a jar of sweet chilli sauce made from our home-grown chillies. However, I really wanted a bit of crunch. And then it dawned on me: kale-slaw. I shredded some kale (including some of the thinner stalks, grated a carrot, chopped the top of a sprouting onion and with the addition of some of the freshly made mayo – a tasty slaw.

 

Something to eat

Following on from yesterday’s post about all the potential crops, I just wanted to say that, even at this time of the year, we are still harvesting from the garden. Throughout the winter we have picked (and continue to pick) kale, mizuna, parsley and blood-veined sorrel and now we are about to have our first purple sprouting broccoli of the season:

In addition, because of all the preserving, we are still eating last year’s crops: bottled apples, bottled passata, frozen raspberries and red currants, apple juice and frozen chillies. We are also getting loads of eggs from the hens. Plus we are undertaking a different sort of cultivation by making yoghurt and cheese.

We are a very long way from self-sufficiency, but I am very proud of what we do manage to produce in our small garden. Even if you don’t have much space, you will be amazed what you can achieve if you have a go.

A taste of the mountains

Can you guess what I have been up to today?

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what’s in the pots?

Well, since it isn’t knitting or crochet, it must be… cheese-making. I recklessly decided to make two cheeses today – a hard cheese which I have made many times before and a new variety. I was so busy concentrating on the new cheese that I made a mistake with the order of additions for the hard cheese… I coagulated the milk before adding the microbial culture. I think it’s going to have an odd texture as a result but, who knows, it might be a triumph!

Anyway, the new variety is an alpine-style cheese; something akin to Raclette. Interestingly, it does not use a cheese culture to start, but instead it is inoculated with yoghurt. The result was some very stretchy curds, but then the key characteristic of Raclette is that it’s very stretchy when melted, so maybe this bodes well. It is pressed only overnight, unlike the hard cheeses, which are pressed for up to 48 hours, and the pressure applied is lower, both of which mean it will retain more moisture. Currently both cheeses are pressing and since I only have one cheese press, I am using my alternative (bought specially for the purpose):

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one cheese press and one clamp

The hard cheese is in the clamp since there is no gauge, but I have a good feel for the amount of pressure that needs to be applied. The alpine cheese is in the press, with the pressure set according to the recipe.

The hard cheese will be waxed for maturing, but the alpine cheese is going to have a washed rind. You can wash the rind in brine or vinegar or alcohol. To keep my theme of local ingredients, I have decided to use a local beer… now I just need to choose which one:

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I wonder which will go best with the cheese?

A little bit of toast

I like toast; I eat it regularly… with eggs, with beans, with jam, with cheese and just with butter. It’s great for lunch and it’s something that I crave when I have been deprived of it for a while. I like it made out of 3-day-old homemade bread and I don’t like it burnt. Making it, however, has been rather energy inefficient recently. Our old toaster was rubbish – very small and unreliable in terms of the amount of toasting achieved – so I’ve been using the grill. This is ok when I’m making lots of toast, but is highly inefficient for a single piece when I’m home alone.

So, I decided we needed a new toaster and my heart sank when I thought about all the research and trying to make the most ethical decision. BUT I very quickly came across Dualit, who make toasters in the UK that are designed to last and for which you can easily buy spares, and that come in a variety of different sizes and which allow you to select how many pieces of toast you are making so that only the necessary elements are heated each time. And I thought to myself… why isn’t it always this  straightforward to find a company who do not subscribe to designed obsolescence?

And today, when it arrived, it was packed in cardboard and paper… the only tiny bits of plastic present enclosed the delivery note and took the form of the small seals to keep the box closed. So, hurrah for Dualit and here’s to many years of happy toasting.

Just one thing

The other day, someone on a discussion group that I’m a member of asked what one thing they should do to start leading a more sustainable life. I have to confess that I didn’t respond, but it is a question that I’ve been pondering ever since. Of course there’s lots of things you could do, from saying no to plastic bags to catching the bus rather than driving the car, but on reflection, I think my advice would be to consider your eating habits.

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In control of your own potatoes!

If you start thinking more about the food you eat, you will begin to wonder what’s actually in it and where it came from. The more your food has been prepared or processed before it gets to you, the more difficult it is to unpick its history, so you become less and less sure of what you are actually swallowing. Let’s consider two extremes, in the form of mashed potato:

  •  If you eat a potato that you have grown yourself, then you can be sure how far it has travelled, what chemicals have been applied to it, exactly what variety it is and when it was harvested. In addition, it’s pretty certain that it won’t have had any packaging, except when it’s parent seed potato arrived for planting. You can boil it and eat it without any additional ingredients, but any that you do add – salt, butter, milk, oil – will be under your control in terms of source and amount.
  • If you buy pre-prepared mashed potato, you’ll have to look at the ingredients to know what’s in it (for example, Tesco Fresh Mashed Potato contains: Potato, Skimmed Milk, Whole Milk (9%), Butter (Milk) (3%), Salt, White Pepper). You won’t know how the potatoes were grown, and you may only have the vaguest indication of where they were grown and/or processed (the Tesco version states “Produced in the UK” and nothing else). There’s bound to be packaging (plastic and cardboard in this example) and there’s going to have been lots of food miles, because of transporting the potato to the processing plant, transporting the product to a central distribution centre and from there to the shop, before you can finally transport it home to eat.
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Buying in bulk can mean less packaging

Of course, we can’t all grow our own food, and many people can’t grow any of their own food, but if you can (even a little bit), you can be completely in control of that part of your diet. The next best option is to buy direct from the producer – if you buy from the person who grows or makes your food, you can ask them questions about it. In addition, in my experience, small producers of non-luxury foods generally minimise their packaging as it costs them money: many small-scale sellers will aim simply for freshness and protection. Buying direct also reduces food miles because the supply chain is so short. The popularity of farmers’ and producers’ markets has given many more people the opportunity to buy direct, plus more and more small producers are selling online. This is encouraging, but still you’d be very lucky to be able to source all your food direct – almost all of us have to rely, at least to some extent, on third party suppliers, and then there is an element of trust in the relationship.

Over the years I’ve read so many labels on packets containing food. Sometimes, I just can’t face the disappointment of discovering that my favourite biscuits contain palm oil, so I don’t read the ingredients, but sooner or later I get round to it and often it results in me making changes to my diet. There are some products that I’ve given up not because of the ingredients, but because of the packaging (teabags, for example). As a result there are now only a few things that we eat that I haven’t made myself, and increasingly I find that I no longer enjoy the flavour of pre-prepared/processed things that I used to eat or drink often . This, however, has been a very gradual process. Twenty years ago we did almost all our food shopping in a supermarket and I didn’t think twice about buying a pizza or a bag of frozen chips. And this is one of the joys of focusing on food – small changes accumulate over time and because we eat every day, a little change can have a big impact over a whole year.

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Some home-made food is fancier than others

I wish I’d kept better track of the way our food has changed – it would be interesting. I’m sure that stopping going out to work made a big difference. Since I now do all my paid work from home, it’s much easier to fit in cooking from scratch. My commitment to cooking has also meant that I have bought kitchen equipment that I would otherwise not have bothered with – for example, my Kenwood Chef sure does get a lot of use, and we like it especially because a single motor can run the coffee grinder, blender, ice cream maker and mincer as well as the basic mixer; it’s also possible to buy spares if there’s a problem. Having the right equipment makes a huge impact on the speed I can make things, although very few items are essential.

 

So, if you want to make a start on saving the planet, think about your food and make a few changes that fit your lifestyle. You may be surprised how your shopping and diet are gradually transformed without a huge traumatic shift in your habits.

And finally…

The limery has done us proud all year – from seeds sown in the propagator in January to the great abundance of peppers through the summer. Currently there’s a pot of rosemary flowering in there, although we’re a bit short of pollinators, and the passion flower vine is putting on plenty of new growth.

However, the most amazing thing may be that today, 20 December, I harvested these:

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Freshly picked today

 

That’s right – tomatoes still ripening on the plant in the depths of winter. From these I will be able to make winter solstice passata!

It’s beginning to look a lot like solstice

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Last 25 December we had a picnic in the limery

As many of you know, we don’t celebrate Christmas Chez Snail, although we do have a nice relaxing day on 25 December. The thing that we celebrate here is the solstice – the real turning of the year, the time when the light starts to return and we look forward to the abundance of the coming seasons. Some would say it’s pagan, but for me it’s a primal thing – deeply embedded in all of us – a spark of hope as the days start to get longer and the prospect of summer calls to us. So, the solstice is a genuine reason to celebrate, which we do with food (not presents).

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Solstice lights in 2015

This year on the solstice we are going to be eating pork…ethically sourced of course. I’ll be cooking it long and slow to create ‘pulled pork’ and I’ll be baking bread rolls to serve it on. There will be a leafy salad and various home-made condiments and then we’ll finish with some sort of cake made using the abundance of eggs that our hens are still laying. We’ll eat in the limery – the source of so much abundance over the past year, and we’ll celebrate the coming of light with light – beeswax candles and fairy lights.

If you are in the northern hemisphere perhaps you too will raise a glass to the prospect of summer, and if you are in the southern hemisphere I hope you will be revelling in warm log days and the bounty of summer*.

-oOo-

* Of course, if you live in the tropics, such points in the year mean little and I hope that you will be enjoying your mangoes and papayas as often as possible!

Biscuits – trial #1

My quest for palm-oil free biscuits is currently in the ‘home-made’ phase. Yesterday I trialled two recipes – one for oat biscuits and one for digestives.

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Oat crunchies

Oat Crunchies. I found this recipe for very easy oat biscuits in an old Delia Smith cookery book using very simple ingredients – jumbo oats, porridge oats, demerara sugar and margarine. I don’t eat margarine, so I substituted butter. There were tasty, but there was far too much fat in them – on reflection, butter is almost 100% fat, whilst margarine contains a high proportion of water, so I should have cut down the quantity. They are very easy and I do like the flavour, so I will make them again and modify the recipe. Once I’ve got it right, I will share it with you.

 

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Chocolate freshly applied

Chocolate digestives. Now this is my real target, and this was my first try. I found an article on The Guardian website entitled How to Cook the Perfect Digestive Biscuit by Felicity Cloake. How promising is that? There’s quite a lot of discussion about ingredients and the reasons for including them so I decided to give her recipe a try. Unfortunately I couldn’t get hold of any medium oatmeal locally, so I ended up using ‘fine’ instead, which may have altered the texture a little. The general consensus is that these have the right sort of flavour, but they are not crunchy enough and have a slightly stodgy texture. I think rolling them out a bit thinner would help and I will do this next time. It is certainly a promising start and I have high hopes for future success.

 

Cream of the crop

We’ve now been getting our milk direct from Penlan y Mor for a couple of months and we are starting to get into a routine. We send a text to check it’s ok to call in, and if it is (there’s not been a problem yet) we drive down with our 10 litre churn and get it filled from the huge refrigerated tank. Once home, we decant it into glass jars for storage in the fridge or plastic cartons for the freezer.

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Ready for storage

However, since the milk is so creamy, it seems silly to buy cream separately, so I’ve now started leaving the milk to settle for a couple of hours before bottling, so that I can skim some of the cream off the top:

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Skimming

I store this in a fancy glass jar… no particular reason, I just like it. And then we can have cream on our waffles for Sunday brunch – yum.

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a little jar of cream

Now, I just need to get into a routine with cheese-making, which was the reason for getting milk from the farm in the first place…

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