A supply problem

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non-homogenised milk… complete with cream

The best laid plans are often scuppered by circumstances beyond our control… and so it has been this year with my cheese-making.

I love making cheese and I was happily enjoying doing it using milk from a farm just down the road until the summer. And then it all came to an end. The milk I was using was linked to a food-poisoning scare at the local farmers’ market and sales ceased. Now, we and many other local people had been drinking and using this milk for over a year without incident, including during the time the problem occurred. I haven’t been able to find out whether there was any conclusive link between the milk and the food poisoning, but the upshot is that the farm has stopped selling raw milk and have not yet decided whether they will ever start again. Whilst this should have been nothing more than a set-back for me, it’s actually turned out to have completely scuppered my home cheese-making.

The real problem is that, to make cheese, you need non-homogenised milk. It doesn’t matter whether it’s pasteurised or not, but it mustn’t be homogenised… which almost all commercially available milk is. I hunted the internet, but I’m not having much joy. You can buy it from a posh supermarket that we don’t live anywhere near, but it really isn’t commonly available. I thought that I had found another local farm to buy it from, but further investigation revealed that their milk too was homogenised.

I can only assume that homogenisation is so common because it allows milk sellers to control exactly how much butterfat there is in the milk. Sadly, it means our milk is one further step removed from being ‘natural’ and so I can’t make cheese. The other depressing upshot is that our milk for general use is now arriving in plastic packaging – something I had completely eliminated by collecting our milk in my churn direct from the tank on the farm.

So, my quest continues and in the mean time, I’ll have to buy my cheese ready-made, and eat the stock I’ve already got maturing.

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fortunately, this monster is now in the fridge maturing

Out of my life

As the year draws to a close I have been reviewing some of the changes that I’ve made in my life over the past 12 months. Every year I try to do things to make my life that bit more sustainable, and this past year has been no exception:

  • I’ve given up liquid shampoo and shower gel in order to reduce transport of water and to cut out a bit of plastic packaging. I did come across some previously unnoticed shampoo in the bathroom the other day which I am using up, but once that’s done with there will be no more. I’m now only buying bars of soap/shampoo packed in cardboard/paper.
  • In goes the second one

    Our own container at the take-away

    I’ve started saying ‘no’ to lots of packaging – taking our own containers to the butchers and the take-away, for example, means a few less plastic bags and a bit less aluminium foil in the world.We also take our own fabric bags and repeatedly reused plastic bags to the greengrocer’s to put our veggies in. Plastic carrier bags have not been part of our life for many years.

  • We are now buying all our milk direct from a local farm. This means much lower energy inputs (transportation, processing) and no plastic cartons, as we take our own churn. In addition, we are keeping money in the local economy and the milk is delicious and great for making cheese, yoghurt and extracting the cream.
  • I’ve invested in a steam juicer, so we have another way of processing all the apples we tend to get given in the autumn. Making our own juice means repeated re-use of the bottles (cutting down on packaging), reducing transportation of processed juice and thus fewer food miles and knowing exactly what’s in the juice we are drinking.
  • I’ve given up fly paper – it may seem like a small thing, but it’s nice to feel that the fly control in the limery is being achieved by plants rather than a manufactured product.
  • during

    home-made brass cleaner

    I’m now making my own deodorant – it’s more effective than the ‘green’ stuff I was buying before, plus there’s relatively little packaging and it’s made from very simple ingredients.

  • I’ve started making more of my own cleaning products: re-usable cleaning wipes, window cleaner, brass cleaner. All of these rely on limited ingredients and I now have supplies of alcohol, white vinegar, bicarbonate of soda and essential oils to make what I need when I need it.
  • I’ve increased the amount of mending that I’m doing. Darning, patching and sticking things together with Sugru are amongst my most common types of mending.

I’m not sure that’s everything for 2016, but it seems like some good steps forward. My next challenge is a bit more daunting: excluding palm oil from my life. I think that all our toiletries and household cleaning products are palm oil free, and I cook most of our food from scratch, so there’s none in that, but I do have a problem: my weakness for biscuits. I do like a chocolate digestive biscuit with a cuppa and sadly I have found that McVities, who make my favourite type, use palm oil. So, I have to find a brand I like that’s ethical, make my own, or give them up entirely. I’m now checking all the other products we use that may contain palm oil, just in case…

 

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…

But is it organic?

My recent enthusiasm for local, unadulterated milk has resulted in conversations with various people and often one of the  first questions asked is ‘But is it organic?’

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Fresh from the farm

It’s interesting that this question keeps arising. It’s not so many years ago that no one would have thought to ask, but now ‘organic’ has become the label that we seek to reassure ourselves of quality, ethics, sustainability… a multitude of features that may be real or may be perceived. So what is the truth and does it matter whether an item has the ‘organic’ branding?

Here in the UK there are nine approved organic certification bodies, the largest of which is The Soil Association.

The Soil Association is the UK’s leading membership charity campaigning for healthy, humane and sustainable food, farming and land use….
The Charity has a wholly owned subsidiary Soil Association Certification Limited, the UK’s largest organic certification body.  This is run as a not for profit company that as well as helping to deliver parts of the Charity’s strategy also generates financial returns that are ploughed back into the Charity’s wider work.

So the term ‘Organic’ refers specifically to legal certification… but what are producers certified for? Well, the definition is covered by EU law

Organic production respects natural systems and cycles. Biological and mechanical production processes and land-related production should be used to achieve sustainability, without having recourse to genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

In organic farming, closed cycles using internal resources and inputs are preferred to open cycles based on external resources. If the latter are used, they should be

  • organic materials from other organic farms
  • natural substances
  • materials obtained naturally, or
  • mineral fertilisers with low solubility.

Exceptionally, however, synthetic resources and inputs may be permissible if there are no suitable alternatives. Such products, which must be scrutinised by the Commission and EU countries before authorisation, are listed in the annexes to the implementing regulation (Commission Regulation (EC) No. 889/2008).

However, it’s worth noting that any grower can follow the organic guidance without paying for the certification; in this case, however, they can’t legally label their produce as being ‘organic’.

A little while ago I met someone who was convinced that we should only buy organic produce, but I have to say that I disagree. Many small producers simply can’t afford organic certification, and many producers whose systems are low-input don’t quite fulfil the criteria. And, of course, there’s always the trade-off between locally produced non-organic produce and organic produce transported from hundreds or even thousands of miles away.

The answer? Well, nothing is simple, and if you have to shop in a supermarket, then the labels are all you can rely on. However, if you can buy from smaller shops or direct from the producer, then things are different. In these cases, you can have a conversation about the food – you can talk about the way it is produced, how far it has travelled and what chemicals have been applied.

The farm milk I am buying isn’t ‘organic’, but

  • the milking parlour (and other energy required by the farm) is produced by a wind turbine
  • as much of the cattle feed as possible is produced on site
  • the cows are not routinely given antibiotics (they don’t need to be, they are milked twice a day and any problems can be identified very quickly),
  • the food miles involved (from them to us) are very low
  • there is no packaging – I take my own container
  • I can go to the farm and see the animals and judge the standard of welfare for myself and ask any questions I want.

In a supermarket I am relying on others to evaluate the ethics of the food I buy, so certification is useful. Buying direct I feel that I am making informed choices, so the label is no longer a key issue. And, in addition, the more we talk directly to producers, the more they hear what we, as consumers, want and the more we can encourage them (including by giving them our money) to implement the approaches that we would like to see.

Llaeth Crai – my own revolution

Democracy is a great thing – we all get to vote periodically and select the people who will lead our country. And then we get to moan about them, see them hand power to unelected organisations, and basically do a bunch of things that make us unhappy.

How would you feel, however, about getting to cast a vote everyday? How would you like to make choices that would have a direct effect on the country, the economy, your community? Does this appeal to you? What if I told you that you were already doing it? Well, you are – every time you spend money, you are casting a vote. You are choosing the sort of world you want and you are choosing the businesses that you want to thrive. Most of us don’t have unlimited money and so we have to prioritise where we spend it. Unless you are living in poverty you have a multitude of choices and  encourage you to think about their implications.

Always buying the very latest Smartphone means you are supporting a multinational company that exploits its workers and plunders the earth for raw materials, adversely affecting lives and the natural world. And this is your choice – no one is forcing you to make it. Alternatively, you could keep the phone you have and use the money that you would have spent on the new one to do some good, to support ethical companies, local producers or crafts people. But  what about everyday purchases? Lets think about food…

The people who feed us are getting shafted by the supermarkets and we need to make sure that this doesn’t happen Without our farmers, most of us would not have anything to eat and even those of us who produce some of our own food would be in dire straights. Dairy farming is a case in point – in the supermarket whole milk costs 45-80p per litre, but farmers currently only get paid about 22p. This means that dairy farming is right on the cusp of being viable, and many small farms are only able to make it pay because the family effectively works for next to nothing. And this matters – it matters because these people are often at the heart of our rural communities, because these people are the guardians of our land and because they are almost certainly being forced to work within an economic model that makes no sense to them.

Milk is produced across the UK, so why is it transported hundreds of miles around the country to be sold, packaged, resold and processed? Surely in these days when we need to minimise our use of fossil fuels, the best place for milk to be processed and consumed would be close to where it was produced?

So, I’m putting my money where my mouth is. Several local farms in our area have started selling their milk direct, and so the other day I arranged to go to the closest one, Penlan y Môr, to make my first purchase. They sell raw (i.e. unpasteurised) whole milk in glass bottles:

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Returnable glass bottles with screw caps

They will also put it in containers that you take yourself. There is no throw-away packaging and no unnecessary transport. As well as trying out the milk for general use, I wanted some for cheese-making. Apparently I am the first customer to turn up with my own churn…

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My churn being filled

The cheese-making is currently underway – a hard cheddar-type and a soft curd cheese. It will be a few months before I can report on how the former turns out, but the curd cheese will be ready to taste tomorrow and I’ll be taking a sample back to the farm so that the family can taste what their milk can become.

Now that’s the type of thing I want to do to support my community and make the world the sort of place I want to live in. How about you?

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My milk – positively shining in the sun!

Not making cheese

I had plans for this weekend… Mr Snail is away with Sister-of-Snail, so it would be an ideal time to occupy the kitchen.

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All my own work

Last week, we finally got round to tasting the cheese I made in February. I’m delighted to report that it was cheesy (well, you never know) and had a good texture. We would have liked it to be a little more mature, but we were impatient to test it in order to know whether it was worth making some more, so the mildish flavour was not unexpected. We tried it both raw and as Welsh rarebit and in both cases it was most acceptable. Waxing the surface had made it much easier to care for than if I’d allowed it to develop a natural rind, and the wax has been saved for re-use, so it is not wasted. With this success, I decided to make some more, using milk from the same source – it is unpasteurised and from Jersey cows and it has to be ordered a day or two in advance for delivery to the door. I’ve got a couple of potential sources of more local milk, but with my lack of experience, I want to get comfortable with the process using a raw product that I know has worked before. I will diversify later.

 

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No new cheese available to show you… but here’s the original lot toasted in the form of Welsh Rarebit

So, the milk was ordered for delivery on Friday and cheese-making was planned for Saturday. However, part way through Friday morning, the telephone rang and I answered it to a very apologetic dairy farmer. Sadly, he said, the box with the milk in had been dropped at the depot so it couldn’t be delivered… would I like a refund? I assured him that I wasn’t genuinely desperate for 12 litres of milk and that I could make cheese next week, so delivery is now scheduled for next Tuesday. The lovely farmer was most grateful that I wasn’t cross (what would have been the point?) and was clearly delighted that I hadn’t cancelled the order.

 

My weekend has, therefore, consisted of potting up lots of plants, planting seeds, cutting down nettles to make liquid plant food, getting nettled (despite my best efforts not to) and writing letters. Yes, the plan to send out real letters is continuing… now I have decent paper and ink that is liquid (rather than a congealed blob in the bottom of the bottle), it’s not too difficult to get my fountain pen out of its box and do some real writing. If you asked for a letter, there may be one on its way to you; in fact there may be one on its way to you even if you didn’t ask for a letter! I’m always open to requests, so if you would like to receive a real, hand-written letter through the post, do let me know… it’s so much more fun than getting an e-mail after all.

And now, it’s probably time for a glass of wine and a spot of crochet… oh, the pressure!

When the world gives you snow – make cheese

After an hour it was white

After an hour it was white

You should always be flexible in life, so when it started snowing very heavily today I simply changed my plans. We live right by the coast, so snow is not particularly common and we are not set up to deal with it. Even so, when the flakes started to fall I didn’t think it would be a problem. However, an hour later it was still snowing and the ground, even the road, was white. I was supposed to be taking the car to the garage and have lunch with a friend in Aberystwyth, but she reported snow up there too so I cancelled arrangements and rescheduled for next week (lunch and car).

Which left me with an unplanned day… and 8 litres of organic milk that I bought yesterday. The obvious solution was to combine these two resources and make cheese. After the success of the soft cheese, I decided to have a go at a ‘simple’ hard cheese. The biggest issue with this is the size of containers, but the pans I use for preserving turned out to be ideal (and, of course, easy to sterilise). The new cheese-making book made me realise that, at the temperatures required, I don’t need to have a water bath on the stove for bringing the milk up to temperature and maintaining it there, I can just have a big plastic tub and add warm or cool water to it, which is what I did and is, in fact, much more controllable.

The first part of cheese-making requires a lot of intervention, and so my unexpected day was a gift in this respect. There’s heating, and adding the bacterial culture, and mixing in rennet, and waiting, and mixing, and allowing it to settle, and straining through cheesecloth several times before putting it in a mold and starting to press it. It takes about six hours before it’s ready to go in the press – some of that time you can leave it to its own devices and some you have to be directly involved, but either way you need to be around and only doing other tasks that you can stop when necessary. Anyway, the cheese is now in the press, so fingers crossed that my first attempt will produce something edible.

A cheesy birthday present

The second of January may be the worst possible day to have a birthday. Mr Snail, however, does his utmost to ensure that I have a good day and this year was no exception… a lovely lunch at The Harbourmaster and then an evening at home with a glass or two of something sparkling.

Although we don’t do presents for Christmas/Yule/Chanukah, we do give each other birthday gifts. This year I asked for a cheese-making kit. I thought it might be a fun skill to acquire and it is something that I have never tried before. Proper cheese, especially the hard stuff, has relatively little lactose in it and so I am able to eat it in moderation.

Cheese-making kit

Cheese-making kit

So, today I have been playing with milk. My first attempt is a soft cheese as this is quicker than a hard cheese and is easier to make in small quantities… I decided that starting with a recipe that requires 6 litres of milk was just too ambitious! There has been heating of milk and subdividing the ‘starter’… there has been a water bath, rennet, lots of sterilising (using boiling water so as not to taint the cheese with chemicals) and quite a bit of mess. I didn’t manage to achieve the cubes of curds described in the recipe, but I have finally got three molds filled with curds so that the whey can drain off. The next step (in about an hour) is slipping the developing  cheese out of the molds and turning it… that sounds like something that could go horribly wrong! Anyway, here is progress so far:

 

By tomorrow I may have three small soft cheeses … or I may just have a pile of curds and a bowl of whey… only time will tell. Anyway, thank you to Mr Snail for buying me such an interesting birthday present… I’ve never wanted perfume and flowers and it’s a good job he understands this!

Now, I’d better work out what I can use all this whey for.

Size matters

I write quite often about buying locally from small producers. Recently, however, I have been asked whether this is always a good approach. Well, I have to confess that I hadn’t thought much about it before, but having given the subject some consideration, I find that (as with most things in life) it’s complicated…

An early harvest of Colleen

I can grow my own potatoes, but not my own wheat

These days, my preference when buying vegetables that I can’t grow enough of myself, for example, is to go to one of our local farms or to a lovely organic shop that sources lots of the produce locally and has a no-fly policy for all the rest. So, sometimes I’m buying direct from the producer and sometimes there is an intermediary involved. Either way, the supply chain is very short and there are (generally) very few food miles involved. However, there are even smaller producers that I could buy from – people who sell their produce with an honesty box by the gate – and maybe I should try to support this sort of grower too. Or maybe the shop that acts as a market for a whole range of producers is a better option – providing more jobs (the people in the shop and the people on the farm) and possibly being more energy efficient (larger-scale growing operations can, potentially, be more streamlined).

This sort of analysis can be applied to any product and, on consideration, it is clear that different goods and crops are better suited to different scales of production. For example, I can grow enough potatoes in my garden, and store and process them, to supply our needs for well over half the year. Thus, this crop is well suited to tiny-scale production. The remainder I can source locally, thus supporting local growers and keeping food miles down. In contrast, I cannot grow my own wheat, and this seems to be better suited to field-scale production and processing. In addition, west Wales has limited land that is suitable for growing wheat, so what I buy mostly has to come from further afield. Of course, both of these crops can be produced on an industrial scale, with high inputs of energy and chemicals and minimized human activity, but those are definitely production methods I want to avoid.

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One of Snuffkin’s goats used for very small-scale milk production (check out her lovely blog here)

Milk is a particular concern to me as regards the scale of production. The scale ranges from people with just a milking cow or a few goats up to the mega-dairies that are starting to appear in the UK. Mega-dairies, with 1000 plus cattle, are based on the idea of economies of scale. The cows in such dairies are kept indoors and fed on concentrates, with a huge associated problem of slurry disposal. The idea is that this is a cheap way to produce milk, but there are issues associated not only with the health and welfare of the animals in the dairy, but also with methane emissions, use of pesticides, fertiliser and fuel for growing the grain that is required for the feed and, of course, all the transportation costs associated with moving feed, stock and the milk. In addition, it has been suggested that, far from buffering food production from challenges, this approach is associated with a high level of risk. Indeed, being completely reliant on the petrochemical industry seems to be highly problematic, and although the milk produced this way might be “cheap” now (especially since the producers and consumers are not paying, financially, to deal with associated pollution), that illusion may be shattered by those who control the prices of fossil fuels (and that’s not you or me). As for what happens to such factory farms when petrochemicals become scarce, well they simply will not be flexible enough to survive. I do not feel comfortable with food production on this scale and certainly try to avoid buying any milk or milk products that may have come from such a facility. However, the milk demands of the country cannot currently be fulfilled by tiny-scale producers, so we have to seek out some sort of sustainable intermediate scale or give up our reliance on dairy products.

We are faced with a multitude of choices about what we buy and who we buy from. Some seem quite straightforward – you have to buy solar panels from a big producer, and you can easily buy an new shawl pin from a small craftsperson – but others are much more complex and there will be pros and cons. We might wish to consider the local economy, energy consumption, transportation, supporting communities, and a multitude of other factors when making choices and clearly there is no ‘right’ answer. Sometimes buying from a larger producer may deliver more of our aims than buying from a small one. One characteristic of human beings is that we trade, but while we are doing so it’s important to think about the implications associated with our choices.

-oOo-

This post was the result of a request from Linda. I have only managed to raise some of the issues and can provide no answers apart from suggesting that we are aware of this subject. I’d love to hear what other people think about appropriate scales.

What’s in a yarn?

Recently I have been concentrating again on researching yarn ethics… it’s a long time since my original post. There is so much information out there and it can be really hard to wade through it all to find out what you want to know.

Having sifted through a whole load of web sites* and tracked down a very useful book**, I have managed to distill some of what I have learned into a diagram to help you and me understand what different yarns actually are:

Yarn types

Plus, here is a little table listing some information about the various yarns you might come across:

Yarn Natural/MMF Source Polymer Fibre
Wool Natural Animal Protein Spun yarn
Alpaca Natural Animal Protein Spun yarn
Silk Natural Animal Protein Spun yarn
Acrylic Manmade Petrochemical Synthetic Polyacrylic
Hemp Natural Plant Cellulose Twine, yarn
Flax Natural Plant Cellulose Twine, yarn, linen
Bamboo Manmade Plant Cellulose Rayon, Acetate, Viscose
Bamboo Natural Plant Cellulose Twine, yarn
Soya Manmade Plant Protein Rayon
Milk Manmade Plant Protein Rayon
Cotton Natural Plant Cellulose Spun yarn
Cotton Manmade Plant Cellulose Rayon
Wood Manmade Plant Cellulose Viscose
Nettle Natural Plant Cellulose Twine, yarn

I hope this will be useful when you are choosing a yarn or a fabric.

-oOo-

* Amongst my favourites are: http://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/ and http://www.ecouterre.com/

** Eberle, H., Hornberger, M., Kupke, R., Moll, A., Hermeling, H., Kilgus, R., Menzer, D, and Ring, W. (2008) Clothing Technology… from fibre to fashion. Verlag Europa-Lehrmittel. ISBN 978-3-8085-6225-3.

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