Supporting small

Over recent months many small businesses have found themselves in a precarious situation – unable to open shops, sell at markets – making it all the more important that we support them now to ensure their future existence. We Snails have done our very best to buy from small traders over the past 10 months and have managed to source the majority of our food that way – luckily in our part of the world there are many, many small food producers and an abundance of independent retailers. In addition, we’ve been able to access direct from some producers via the internet. I know that people who cannot go to the shops have found the big supermarkets to be a lifeline, but those of us who are able to shop locally can play our part in making sure that people in our community who have small businesses continue not only to survive, but to thrive. Plus, many of our local small businesses have gone the extra mile to support the vulnerable in our community – delivering emergency supplies at short notice, for example – something that you simply wouldn’t get from big companies. In addition, many small businesses, despite suffering themselves, have donated to local food banks and other charities supporting the needy.

Aside from shops that sell food, other retailers have found the last year even more of a challenge. Even well-established companies are being affected. I noticed that Baa Ram Ewe, producers of fabulous British wool (including the stuff I made my latest fingerless mittens out of), have had to resort to crowd funding to give their business a chance of surviving (here is the link). Whilst I have been at home, I have tried to make the majority of my on-line purchases of materials for making things from small, independent companies, but I also keep an eye open for very small enterprises who are crowdfunding. And this is how I came across Midwinter Yarns, who were trying to collect enough money to produce a Welsh wool to add to their range. They are based in Scotland, but have Welsh connections and their wool sounded lovely (you can read about it here, although their crowdfunder was successful and closed last summer).

My contribution was sufficient to receive six skeins of their hand-dyed yarn. The wool arrived a few weeks ago and so I needed to find a pattern that would be suitable for the amount of yarn available. Having gone out of my usual comfort zone and chosen a sludgy green colour (the photo on the left below is closest to the actual colour), I wanted to make something appropriate, which I think I found with Southern Pines by Dora Does.

It’s worked top down, all in one piece, so there’s no sewing up at the end. I had a bit of an issue early on in the pattern, but Michelle, the designer. was amazingly helpful, even though it turned out that the problem was me being dim rather than an issue with the pattern itself. It will have long (or at least 3/4) sleeves, and I’ll make the body as long as uses up all the yarn – this is one of the joys of top-down garments. I plan to make a skirt to wear with it out of some grey and white fabric I have with a design called “crop circles” (the fabric was from an independent on-line store, but more on that in a future post). So, a new outfit in hand all from small, businesses – long may they survive.

Five fings Friday

So, after yesterday’s post turned into a bit of a wallow on my part, I thought I would pick myself up and list  not three, but five fings things that are making me smile today (or made me smile yesterday).

First,  you lot. Your kind messages and comments yesterday went a long way to cheering me up. Although I’m still smarting from the rejection, it was lovely to be showered with so many positive messages. I’ve picked myself up and I’m moving on.


it’s years since I’ve had Christmas presents!

Second,  secret Santa. Under normal circumstances I don’t do Christmas gifts, but I did decide to join in with Sewchet’s Stitching Santa this year. And yesterday I was very excited when my present arrived. It’s secret so I don’t know who it’s from until I open it, but it’s a lovely box filled with things yarn-related, so it’s bound to be a joy to open. I still haven’t decided whether to keep it an extra week until my birthday, but I may not be able to resist it for that long.



Third, chocolate. Yesterday afternoon I cheered myself up with some cooking. In the absence of the beef, we decided to have fish pie (made using sustainably caught fish from Cornwall), followed by dark chocolate tart with a white chocolate sauce and raspberries (grown by me). The tart had chocolate pastry and a baked mousse-like filling. The sauce was simply a small amount of white chocolate melted in hot cream and then a teaspoon of liqueur added – it worked very well to contrast with the dark chocolate and the raspberries, although it would have been very sickly on its own.


just the thing to make Sophie look extra-beautiful

Fourth, the end is in sight. I now only have two rows of Sophie remaining, so she will be finished tonight. I was delighted, therefore, that my new blocking mats arrived yesterday. Sophie is too big to block on my usual cork board, so I have bought some interlocking children’s play mats for the purpose. Each one measures 30cm × 30cm, so it’s possible to construct the size and shape of mat I need very easily. I did try to find some secondhand mats, but in the end I had to buy new; however, I think they are going to get lots of use in the future.

Fifth, a lot of swimming. Today is the final day in 2017 that our local swimming pool is open. I won’t be able to go and swim there again until 8 January 2018. So I’ve totted up my tally for this year and I discover that I have been swimming 112 times. I’m very proud of myself… especially considering that most of those swims have been at 7am.

So there we are, lots to make me smile today. How about you? I really hope good things are happening in your life and, for those of you who find this time of year difficult, I send a big hug and remind you that the media’s representation of Christmas is nonsense and that there are lots of lovely people out there who want to support you and make you happy, like the café owner in this story from our local newspaper.

Thanks once again for the lovely comments on yesterdays post – you are all amazing.

Three Things Thursday: 16 November 2017

My weekly exercise in gratitude – three things that are making me smile – feel free to steal this idea with wild abandon and fill your blog [or Twitter account or Facebook page or diary or life in general] with happiness.

First, secret stitching gifts. I mentioned before that, despite my usual rejection of all things Christmas, I decided to participate in Sewchet’s festive gift exchange. It’s nice to have an excuse to put together some yarny things that I know will be appreciated… and also to pass on some of my surplus. I made a start this week with my making, creating this little work basket; after all, you can never have too many receptacles for all those “works in progress”:


work basket from Berber carpet wool


Making it was tough on the fingers because the thick carpet wool is quite rough, but it holds its shape well and it should be very robust. In fact this probably counts as a double smile, because I’ve had that particular wool sitting in my collection for several years, so it’s been good to find an appropriate use for it.

Second, food with friends. Some friends came round for dinner on Tuesday evening – I cooked roast pork and heaps of vegetables, followed by apple pie and cream. The food wasn’t fancy, but it was delicious… all the more for sharing it with dear friends. We probably don’t do this often enough.

Third, sleepy dogs. I’m always amused how tired the dogs are after we’ve had people visiting. I smiled a lot at Sam being so crashed out yesterday; she was even too tired for a walk. Oh and for those of you who have asked – Max is still hanging in there . He’s rather frail, but he’s enjoying his low fat, high carb food and a tiny walk on dry days… not a bad life for an old dog.


Sam in recovery yesterday


So, that’s some of what’s making me happy this week. How about you?


Emily of Nerd in the Brain originally created Three Things Thursday, but it’s now being hosted by Natalie of There She Goes.

Why not eat insects?

Does it appeal as an ingredient?

Do they appeal as an ingredient?

Yesterday’s post elicited a few comments here and on Facebook about the potential for people as well as chickens to consume mealworms. This reminded me of a little book I came across some time ago, entitled Why not eat insects?* Published in 1885 and written by one Vincent M. Holt, it raises an interesting question, which I can’t help feeling is answered by the ‘ick’ factor. I know perfectly well that many insects and other invertebrates are highly nutritious, easy to rear in a small space and do not have associated welfare issues in the same way that larger livestock do, but I’m still not rushing off for a mealworm stir-fry! If you consider the classification of animals, insects (i.e. the subphylum Insecta in the phylum Arthropoda) are not far removed from prawns (which are members of the subphylum Crustacea in the phylum Arthropoda). So why do we happily tuck into sweet and sour king prawns but not field crickets in garlic butter? Don’t tell me it’s because you don’t like garlic!

To be fair, lots of cultures do eat insects. If you read Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books, you will find mention of Precious Ramotswe eating mopane worms, which are moth caterpillars. And locusts in honey are mentioned in the bible (although the reference is probably to locust beans) and Game of Thrones (yes I know it’s fictional)… there’s even a recipe inspired by the latter here. Interestingly, dried mealworms do smell quite appetising, but I still can’t quite bring myself to cook with them.

Mr Holt gives some suggested menus in his little book, demonstrating much creativity (New Carrots with Wireworm Sauce; Gooseberry Cream with Sawflies; Devilled Chafer Grubs) but relatively poor taxonomic skills (Fried soles, with Woodlouse Sauce; Slug Soup) and possibly a mis-spelling (Fricassee of Chicken with Chrysalids… too much John Wyndham I think). However, if we are thinking about the wider invertebrate offering, there are the ubiquitous slugs. Some time a go I wrote a post about eating slugs, and I quoted Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall describing his experiments with recipes including slugs; he said  “I can heartily recommend those dishes, with just one small adjustment – leave out the slugs”. Even a man who isn’t particularly squeamish about what he eats clearly isn’t keen – although at least he tried. Slugs are just shell-less snails – a delicacy in France – so why are we not just yumming them up?

I suppose here in the UK (I can’t speak for the rest of you) we have just been taught to find insects distasteful. If it is a purely cultural thing, perhaps we should learn to overcome it… after all there are clear benefits to sourcing our protein from such animals. Do you eat insects?


* You can read it for yourself here.

Rumpaging about the garden

A couple of days ago we called in on a friend who had been the recipient of some Boston squash plants earlier in the summer. She complained that they were ‘rumpaging’ about her vegetable garden. She showed me them progressing up the bank adjacent to their bed and along into the courgettes. Not a bad bit of rumpaging, but mine are doing better: across the patio, over the butterfly netting, into the potatoes, up the greenhouse and well on their way up the willow hedge… they obviously like the conditions:

Over the netting

Over the netting

Supported by the blue plastic piping

Supported by the blue plastic piping

Through the willow branches

Through the willow branches

Up into the hedge

Up into the hedge

Through the potatoes and over the greenhouse

Through the potatoes and over the greenhouse

And all the while, producing fruit (I think this is Oregon Homestead)

And all the while, producing fruit (I think this is Oregon Homestead)

And this is Boston - the original 'rumpager'!

And this is Boston – the original ‘rumpager’!


Fingers crossed for an abundant crop that will last the winter!

Return to Karuna

Nothing is too good for Karuna's ducks!

Nothing is too good for Karuna’s ducks!

I haven’t posted for a few days because, once again, I’ve been teaching an introduction to permaculture course at the Karuna Permaculture Project in Shropshire… three days focusing on how to design robust, resilient and sustainable systems based on the principles and processes that we find in natural ecosystems. The sun shone on us (most of the time), Merav cooked lovely food for us, much of which was grown on site, and we were able to see examples of the things we were discussing all around us, with the opportunity to spend lots of time chatting to people who had created the place and who live there.

Sculptures nestle amongst the trees

Sculptures nestle amongst the trees

In general, I like teaching, but I particularly enjoy it when I am in an inspiring place – and Karuna is one such venue. The project is an amazing series of forest garden areas with surrounding meadows, developed by a single family, with the help of WWOOFers in the summer and occasional other volunteers. It’s hard to describe the diversity of the site, with its fruit trees, herbs, vegetables, specimen trees and  glades, plus a mass of butterflies and birds. In addition, there are some beautiful sculptures to be found as you explore.

The trees around this sculpture were only planted seven years ago

The trees around this sculpture were only planted seven years ago

It’s a young site (only seven years old), but that is hard to believe when you look at it and consider that, apart from some large trees on the edge of the original fields, it was just grazing land when the planting started in 2006. The incredible growth of the trees can be attributed, at least in part, to increasing the fertility of the site and suppressing competitive grasses by mulching around the trees with straw soaked with urine… you see, I told you it was a good source of nitrogen! It’s even more impressive when you discover that the site is at an altitude of about 300m… so it’s not exactly in a sheltered lowland area.

We run a permaculture course there once a year at around this time, but Karuna is a demonstration site as part of the LAND network, and there is a variety of interesting courses run during the summer and early autumn… how about Earth Bag Building (in early September)?

So, here are just a few pictures to tempt you to visit Karuna… perhaps to do a course, to volunteer there, or to book it to use as a venue for an event you are organising…

Camping next to a forest garden area

Camping next to a forest garden area

Vegetables and herbs in abundance

Vegetables, flowers and herbs in abundance

A guided tour

A guided tour

Cucumbers in the polytunnel

Cucumbers in the polytunnel

Exploring the forest garden

Exploring the forest garden

Oh, there’s also a Karuna blog on WordPress here, and a Facebook group here

How does your tarmac grow?

Very well thank you, as you can see:

Something from nothing!

Something from nothing!


Lovely lettuce… in a strawberry planter

In fact, it’s not the tarmac that’s growing anything, but it is providing the base for various containers, all contributing to our vegetable yield this year. For those of you new to my blog, the area in the pictures used to be a complete waste of space, a corner at the end of the driveway that just accumulated junk. A bit of thought and the application of some permaculture principles, and I have turned this area into somewhere useful.

So far this year, we haven’t harvested much from this part of the garden – some lettuce, parsley and about a kilo of potatoes* – but we have high hopes.

It’s lovely to see the mangetout, having been guided by “pea sticks” to grow in the right direction, scrambling up the fence. The mesh on the fence was put there to stop the chickens escaping and wandering down the street, but it has turned out to have a second function – supporting these plants (Yellow-podded – a variety that grows up to six-feet tall).

The lettuces are in a container that was originally intended for growing strawberries. Somehow the fruit-growing was not successful, so it has found a new function – multistory leaves – which seems to be going well so far. Sometimes, success just requires some lateral thinking!


* It’s early for potatoes yet, but it’s possible to remove some from the edge of the dumpy bags without disturbing the root system too much. Although this will reduce our total yield, it means that I am able to supply us with new potatoes at a time of year when the ones in the shops are very expensive. Those in the soil rather than containers will be harvested later in the season when they have produced their maximum crop.

free food for rats

not instructions on feeding rodents!

Don’t be mislead by the title… this in not a post about encouraging vermin!

If you read my ‘about’ page, you will know that I am a scientific editor, but what it doesn’t mention is that I also occasionally edit other books. Sometimes it is a real struggle to stay awake through them, but sometimes I’m asked to work on a book that I really enjoy and am subsequently delighted to own.  free food for rats ** (published by Black Kite Press) is one such book. It is mainly a cookery book, but also includes anecdotes about family and travel, plus some lovely photographs of the food and a variety of illustrations and paper cuts all done by Anja, the author.

Anja has a German mother, a Welsh father and has lived in a variety of countries during her life… and all of this has influenced her cooking. In what other cookery book could you find recipes for Glamorgan Sausages, Waffeln mit Haferflocken (German waffles with oats), Rempeyeck Kacang (Indonesian crispy peanut wafers), Zhurou Chao Huanggua (Chinese pork with cucumber) and Bitterballen (a Dutch beer accompaniment)? And all written by a cook who has lived in all those countries?

One of the joys of the recipes is that they use ingredients that you are likely to have in your store cupboard (with the exception, in my case, of Marmite!)… so none of that getting excited about cooking something only to discover it contains some obscure ingredient that you will have to seek out specially. In addition, the recipes were tested out in Anja’s own kitchen (or her mum’s) and photographed there, so there have been no food stylists involved to make the dishes look any better than they really are – what you see is what you get.

I must confess that I have known Anja and her mum, Eveline, for many years and have enjoyed many a great meal in their respective kitchens… often over a glass of wine or a game of Mahjong, so I am a little biased. But, nevertheless, I love the book and will be cooking recipes from it for years to come.

NEWSFLASH: The book is now available to buy from two shops online: The department of small works and 80 20


** The name comes from a sign that appears in a picture in one of Graham Oakley’s Church Mice books… possibly The Church Mice Adrift

Waste not…

I like to be green: saving energy, growing food, cutting down on water use, all the things that crop up throughout this blog. But from a different perspective, much of what I write could be about saving money: repairing rather than replacing, minimising fuel bills, buying packets of seeds rather than baskets of vegetables from the supermarket, and so on. Whilst some aspects of our life have required quite large financial investments (having solar pv panels fitted, for example) many of the changes we have made have required relatively little, on no, money and have saved on outgoings (for example filling the toilet cistern with rainwater rather than metered mains water).

What I want to write about, today, however, is about getting the most out of the things that you buy, by using all of everything rather than just some. According to Love Food Hate Waste, in the UK

We throw away 7.2 million tonnes of food and drink from our homes every year, costing us £12bn – most of this could have been eaten.

They say that this equates to every person in the UK throwing away, on average, 120kg of food every year. Yes, you read that right 120kg per year! I know that I don’t throw away anywhere near that, so someone is chucking out considerably more!  Actually, none of our uneaten food goes to waste here; one way or another it gets used: fed to the dogs, chickens, wild birds, worms or compost bin. So even if we don’t eat everything directly, some of it comes back round in the form of home-produced fruit, veg or eggs. And because we are not self-sufficient and have to buy lots of our food, the net result must be that the ‘waste’ should be considered a resource that increases the fertility of our land. Most of what goes to the garden one way or another is not food that could have been eaten, it’s usually peelings, pods, tops, outer leaves etc.

When we do have left-over food, we either eat it the next day or put it in the freezer for later use. I try, also, to use every scrap of food when cooking. Thus chicken carcasses are picked clean and then boiled up to make stock for use in soups, sauces, risotto, casseroles and so on. When collecting food from the garden, it’s often possible just to collect what you need, so there isn’t any waste at all. For example, cut-and-come-again lettuces allow you to pick as many leaves as you need and leave the rest of the plant growing. This also means that you get fresh leaves every time, not some that have been sitting in a plastic bag for a week. Of course, in good years, there are gluts in the garden and then preservation is necessary. But even simple measures, like sealing left-overs in a bag or container before putting them in the fridge can allow you to enjoy them a couple of days later without a risk to your health.

Scrapers, funnels and other extraction tools

However, I still like to get the absolute maximum out of the things that we do buy: I can’t bear leaving any of a product behind in the packaging. As a result I have an impressive array of jar-scrapers, brushes and scoops… if I’ve bought something (or even been given it), I am going to use every last scrap of it that I can! I also have a couple of special funnels designed so that one bottle can be held over another to allow every drop of liquid to be transferred to the new receptacle without standing around holding the bottles for an hour or so. I use these for all sorts of liquid, but oils in particular.

Bisected tube

I also cut open plastic tubes, so that I can access whatever has stuck to the side. This applies equally to food or cosmetics. About three weeks ago I apparently came to the end of a tube of moisturiser. When I cut it open I discovered that about 1/3 of the total original volume was adhered to the inside of the tube and could not be squeezed out in the conventional way, but could be accessed easily after judicious application of scissors. Call me cynical, but I can’t help feeling that the manufacturers would be quite happy for me to simply buy a new tube once no more moisturiser could be accessed through the nozzle. I guess that I’m not a good consumer from the perspective of manufacturers, even if I am a wonderful consumer from the perspective of the planet. But I know which I’d rather be!

Chilli festival

In this strange year for crops it appears that we are about to enjoy a bumper crop of chillies – a visit to the greenhouse reveals a veritable chilli forest, including healthy plants with flowers and fruit in abundance. None are ripe yet, but they are starting to change colour.

Mainly Lemon drop – you can see the green unripe fruit amongst the leaves

I have been trialling varieties for a number of years now, and have finally identified ones that do well in my greenhouse here in west Wales. I only grow two*, both from The Real Seed Catalogue. The first is Lemon Drop – a slender fruit that ripens to a beautiful lemon yellow colour and has a reasonable amount of heat and a slightly citrus flavour. This variety is good for drying for use over the winter.

A forest of chillies – purple flowers on Alberto’s Locoto

The second is not, in fact, a different variety but a different species, it’s called Alberto’s Locoto (not sure of the scientific name). Alberto’s Locoto is a great plant – it’s a perennial and so you can keep it going for a number of years. When you do need more you can simply save seeds yourself –  because it is a separate species, it doesn’t cross with any of the other capsicums and so it breeds true. It is a lovely plant – hairy leaves, purple flowers and bright red fruit when ripe. And finally, the chillies are good to eat – they reliably have a decent amount of heat, unlike some chillies I have grown in the past.

Which reminds me… it’s worth noting that all capsicums/peppers/chillies are perennial and, with a little care, they will survive over the winter. Like many vegetables, we treat them as annuals and replant each year, but I have had some very successful crops of peppers in a second or even third year. You can either keep them in the greenhouse (as long as it doesn’t get too cold) or bring them into the house or conservatory (if you have one). Just keeping a couple going is worthwhile if you don’t have much indoor space, as they will crop earlier the following year than newly planted individuals.


*In fact it’s not entirely true that we only have the two varieties; we also have the Hungarian Wax peppers, which we are now referring to as Russian Roulette peppers. We were given the seed and will never grow them again, because their flavour is so unpredictable. I had been led to believe that they started sweet and got hot as they ripened up. This is a lie. Some are hot, some are sweet, the age, colour and plant of origin are not correlated with the flavour at all. As a result Mr Snail-of-happiness and I had the hottest risotto (possibly the hottest dish) I have ever made last week because I naively put two green Hungarian Wax peppers into it without tasting them first. It was impossible to taste any of the other ingredients and we needed some chilled Sauvignon to help us recover! (what an excuse)

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