Plastic is news

Since I last wrote, I’ve been seeing a huge amount in the media about the evils of single-use plastics. It feels like, finally, the rest of the world is catching up with what many of us have known for ages. I’ve seen discussions about un-recyclable coffee cups, drinks bottles, straws, microbeads, microfibres, plastic bags, cotton buds, vegetables wrapped in plastic… the list goes on. I hope that if you’ve read my posts over the years, the issue will not come as a big surprise to you. Perhaps it’s something you have already taken action on – remember every piece of plastic we don’t use, is one less that could become pollution. Some bigger things are afoot, however, as this wave of public concern starts to penetrate the consciousness of politicians and makes retailers and manufacturers worry that sales will suffer. For example:

  • Here in the UK a ban on microbeads in cosmetics came into force earlier this month.
  • There is increasing pressure for a deposit scheme on plastic drinks bottles, and this is the recommendation of the UK government’s Environmental Audit Committee in a recent report.
  • The supermarket Iceland announced this week that they plan to eliminate plastic packaging from all their own-brand products within five years.

But it is important to remember that you don’t have to wait for someone else to take action or to make a difference. You can vote with your wallet and you can, as an individual, make a difference. It’s easy enough to find lists of simple changes to make – say no to plastic straws and disposable coffee cups, buy cotton buds with paper sticks, take your own shopping bags and so on. You might, however, think a bit more creatively.


home made moisturiser

Cosmetics are particular culprit when it comes to over-packaging, but it is possible to cut down on this if you think about your purchases. It’s easy enough to buy soap in paper rather than plastic, for example. I always used to use shower gel because I found soap too harsh on my skin, but a little bit of experimenting and I’ve found lovely mild soaps that I use all the time now. Similarly, I’ve stopped buying liquid hand-wash and now just use bar soap – my favourite in the kitchen is one that has coffee grounds in it to act as a mild abrasive (what a great alternative to tiny bits of plastic). I also use solid shampoo now, which again comes plastic-free. These days I make my own moisturiser (and I also supply my sister with it) because I got so fed up with all the packaging and the difficulty in avoiding palm oil. The ingredients do come in small plastic bags, but the amount of single-use plastic involved is tiny compared to the lotions and potions I could buy in my local chemist (drug store). In addition, it’s fun to make and very easy (I started with a kit from Aromantic).

In fact, if you have time, making all sorts of things yourself can cut down on plastics. My homemade biscuits involve relatively little plastic packaging (cocoa container lid, golden syrup lid, organic chocolate chips bag) and absolutely no palm oil. My bread only encounters single-use plastic around the yeast and salt, and my leek and potato soup is plastic-packaging free. I know it takes time to shop for plastic-free ingredients and then to combine them into the food you want to eat, but it is such a worthwhile activity – healthier for you and for the planet.


Hard to Swallow

As you know from many, many posts on here, I am a big fan of ‘real’ food. I love cooking, especially using ingredients I have grown myself or that have come from producers I know. Of course, this isn’t always possible – we’re short of wheat-growers in Ceredigion, for example. However, most of what we eat Chez Snail, I make from scratch and processed foods do not feature much in our diet. This  happened gradually over the years and has been helped by the fact that, for the last 10 years, I have mostly worked from home, so that I can intermingle earning a living, growing food and cooking. I do understand the challenges of living in a city and going out to work every day when it comes to sourcing and eating good food, so I’m really not criticising anyone who can’t do what I do.

IMGP3955My motivations are many, but mainly I like to know what’s in the food I’m eating. My suspicious about the content of processed and packaged foods have, however, been not only confirmed, but greatly surpassed by a book that I read recently: Swallow This by Joanna Blythman. I cannot recommend this book highly enough – it is a real eye-opener, revealing, for example, the fact that anything that can be classified as a “processing aid” does not need to be declared in the ingredients of a product. This means that things like enzymes that can be used to change the flavour or consistency of an ingredient/product but none of which remains in the finished food do not need to be mentioned – not even if that enzyme is derived from animals and the product is for vegetarians.

From ‘clean labelling’ to ‘modified atmosphere packaging’, the food industry abounds with ways to dupe us into thinking that the food we buy is ‘fresh’ or ‘natural’ when it is anything but. For years we have been told that saturated fats are bad for us, so the food industry has gone out of its way to create low fat foods that are, instead, heavy on the carbohydrates to give them desirable ‘creamy’ textures (low fat, Greek-style yoghurt, anyone?). There is an ever-growing body of evidence, however, showing that saturated fats are not the health problem that we have all been led to believe but that there are issues associated with eating loads of carbohydrates and that polyunsaturated fats are not the panacea they have been made out to be…. and as for margarine, let’s just not go there!

If you are looking for motivation to cook more and source more products direct from producers, Swallow This may be just what you need to read… you will certainly never read the ingredients on a flavoured yoghurt or look at a bag of salad leaves the same way again. Whatever your position, though, I highly recommend this book – it is in all our interests to be knowledgeable about the food we eat.


It’s good to know what’s in your food…

8 Meals 8

… and even better to have grown it yourself


On Friday we decided to have stew and dumplings for our dinner so when we went shopping in the morning I called in at the butchers to buy some suet. Dumplings are so much nicer when made with ‘real’ suet rather than the stuff in packets from the supermarket or – even worse – dumpling mix from a packet, plus there is the benefit of knowing exactly what you are eating. You may also be interested to learn that recent research indicates that eating animal fat is not linked to poor health as we had been led to believe since the 1950s.


Maybe it has no monetary value because it looks unappetising

Anyway I’ve never shopped in this particular butcher’s before, but I wandered in and asked whether they had any suet. “You mean dripping?” I was asked. I assured the butcher that I wanted a piece of beef suet and she disappeared into the fridge looking slightly bewildered. A moment later she emerged with a piece of suet and the words “Fifty pence in the charity pot, is that OK?” So I handed over my fifty pence and returned home,nearly as bewildered as the butcher, with about 700g of suet.

IMGP7538I find it hard to believe that a shop keeper doesn’t consider any item that they have “in stock” to be worth making money on. After all 200g of shredded suet in a pack from the supermarket costs about £1.2o, so there’s clearly a market for it. I accept that not everyone is like me and has a mincer at home, so most people would want to buy their suet in a form that could be used directly. However, all butchers have mincing machines, so I don’t doubt that blocks of suet like the one I got could easily be converted into a saleable product. Maybe the problem is that people simply don’t like the idea of what suet actually is – it doesn’t look very promising, does it? Perhaps people have got used to the idea of meat products being anonymised and processed so that they no longer resemble the animal they came from. I truly believe that if you are going to eat meat, you should be willing to acknowledge its origin and, indeed respect the animal enough to use all of it – even the unappetising suet! Or maybe it’s simply that most people would not have the first idea what to do with suet – I’m pretty certain it’s not currently a trendy ingredient.

Anyway, I was able to extract 550g of usable fat and with 50g being enough to make dumplings for two*, that’s less than 5p per meal for Mr Snail and me. So, I packed it into 50g portions and froze what wasn’t to be used immediately.

And, I’m delighted to report, the dumplings were delicious.


* Simply combine 100g flour with 50g minced/shredded suet, a teaspoon of baking powder and a pinch of salt. Mix to a stiff dough with cold water. Roll into six equally-sized balls. Drop into your hot stew and return to the oven/heat for 20-30 minutes. In my opinion, best cooked uncovered in the oven so they end up with crispy tops and slightly soggy bottoms!

What you eat…

The saying goes that ‘you are what you eat’ and if a recent report in The Guardian newspaper is  true, lots of people in the UK are fakes! What with vegetable fat being passed off as cheese, prawns being mostly water and cupcakes decorated with plastic glitter, it seems that what we put in our mouths is not all that it seems.

I have been cautious about processed foods for a while now – I like to know what ingredients constitute my food and so my inclination these days is to make things from scratch. We make our own bread, pizza bases, cakes, soups, pasta sauces and even (sometimes) pasta. We process lots of our own fresh foods into readily useable forms – frozen passata, bottled peaches and apples, jams, jellies, dried chillies and so on – and so I feel quite confident that I know what we are eating. However, we do buy some things that are ready-made: tomato ketchup, baked beans, chocolate… so there are  ingredients that I don’t have control over.

Settling down with a good book

Settling down with a good book

Having an interest in the food that we eat I was attracted to a book that Candy Blackman mentioned on her Cakes blog a few weeks ago: Harold McGee: Food & Cooking. An Encyclopaedia of Kitchen Science History and Culture. I don’t really need any more recipe books, but a source of reliable information about food and cooking seemed like a great idea. Despite being a massive tome, this book makes for surprisingly engaging reading, containing information on the history of everything from chocolate to saucepans, along with nutritional information, food chemistry and cooking tips. I am really enjoying dipping into it a little each day. Of course it doesn’t tell me about the plastic glitter that I might find on bought cupcakes, but for that I probably need a book on petrochemicals, not food!

A sour taste

Fermented apple scraps

Fermented apple scraps

About a month ago I started making apple scrap vinegar, and I can report that the process is going well. The idea was to find a use for apple peel and cores rather than simply putting them on the compost heap (although that is not a bad use in itself). By making vinegar, however, I am able to obtain an additional yield and still have compostable material… three outputs from one resource!

The strained liquid - each jar holds three litres.

The strained liquid – each jar holds three litres

It’s good to be deliberately making vinegar – I have done it inadvertently in the past, in the days when I used to make my own wine! Having added some sugar-water and allowed the scraps to ferment naturally for a few weeks, yesterday I strained the liquid off and put it in a couple of large glass jars. It’s fascinating that the mixture had not gone mouldy, but naturally occurring  yeasts had caused the fermentation (you don’t add any brewers yeast). I could have allowed it to ferment for a bit longer, but I need the space that the bucket was occupying, so I decided to move on to this next stage of the process.

Covered with loosely-woven fabric and ready for the next stage - vinegar formation

Covered with loosely-woven fabric and ready for the next stage – vinegar formation

I covered the large jars with cloth squares (lovely colour because these are off-cuts from the kitchen curtains) and transferred the jars onto the dresser to allow the liquid to continue its progression towards apple vinegar. Apparently I can now leave it for between two weeks and two months before it’s ready for filtering through a fine cloth and then it can be used directly or pasteurised to allow me to store it. The fermented apple scraps cannot be fed to the chickens (I really don’t want a drunken ‘hen party’ outside my bedroom window), so they have gone straight onto the compost heap. In fact the girls have not been missing out as they’ve had lots of scraps whilst I’ve been processing more apples for the freezer… there’s a limit to the amount of apple vinegar that a girl can make use of!

1-2-3-4 Cake

Last August I wrote a post entitled Cakes and cup cakes, in which I gave my ‘standard’ cake recipe, using equal weights of butter, sugar, eggs and flour. Recently. Pamela commented on the post to suggest an equally easy recipe for what she calls 1-2-3-4 cake. She wrote:

Preheat oven to 350F, butter and flour round cake pans. 1c. butter, 1c.milk, 1tsp vanilla, 2c. sugar, 3c. sifted all purpose flour, 3tsp. baking soda, and 4 eggs. Cream butter, sugar & vanilla together, adding eggs one at a time, add baking soda & flour & bake for an hour (or until the toothpick comes out clean). The icing was confectioners sugar, butter & milk (proportions to be determined by it looking & tasting right) whipped to a frenzy and placed between the layers & around the whole cake, with middle filling (or not) and flavouring/colouring in the icing to the honouree’s preference. If you like heavier cake leave out the baking soda.

Us Brits tend to use weight measures rather than volumes, but I like the idea of using ‘cups’ and have a set of them for when I want to use a North American recipe. I understand that they became widely used in the US because they are so much easier to use when travelling  – relative volumes can be measured out much more simply than weights, and it’s easier to carry a cup than a set of scales and standard weights. However, I digress…

Chocolate orange 1-2-3-4 cake

Chocolate orange 1-2-3-4 cake

I did tweak the recipe a little, using 2 tsps baking powder and 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda in place of the 3 tsps of baking soda (which I translated as bicarbonate of soda). In addition, I added orange essence to the cake mix. There was no mention of when to add the milk, so I mixed it in gently at the end. At the time, I wanted a couple of cakes, so I split the mixture between a loaf tin and two 7-inch round cake tins, which worked well.

I decorated both cakes with chocolate-orange butter cream in the centre (butter/icing sugar/cocoa/orange essence) and a chocolate topping (melted dark chocolate/double cream/orange essence). What a lovely cake it turned out to be and one I will certainly make again.

Cake-making is a great joy to me – partly because eating cake brings a smile to most faces but also because bought cakes (other than those from the people like the Women’s Institute) seem to be stuffed full of things that I don’t really want to eat. For example, Cadbury’s Cake Bars contain:

Milk chocolate (33%) [Sugar, Cocoa mass, Cocoa butter, Dried skimmed milk, Vegetable fat, Milk fat, Dried whey, Emulsifier (Soya lecithin)], Chocolate flavoured filling (17%) [Sugar, Glucose syrup, Vegetable oil, Vegetable margarine (Vegetable oil, Salt, Emulsifier (E471)), Fat reduced cocoa, Maize starch, Dried egg white, Flavouring, Emulsifiers (E471, E475)], Wheat flour, Pasteurised whole egg, Sugar, Glucose syrup, Humectant (Glycerol), Vegetable oil, Fat reduced cocoa, Soya flour, Dried whey, Raising agents (E450, Sodium bicarbonate), Salt, Emulsifiers (E475, E471), Milk protein, Preservative (Potassium sorbate).

I don’t know about you, but I’m much happier with the seven relatively simple ingredients (or 11 if you include my filling and topping) in Pamela’s cake! And if you make my original recipe, there are only four basic ingredients!

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