Taking the biscuit

As you may know, I have been trying to cut palm oil out of my life. Palm oil has certain properties that make it a great ingredient for manufacturers and it can be tricky to avoid unless you cook everything from scratch, particularly since it isn’t always listed as ‘palm oil’ in ingredients lists. Anyway, I discovered a few months ago that it’s in most commercially-produced biscuits (including my beloved digestives). The answer, however, was provided by two friends: Sue sent me three recipes and Kate sent me one. Since January, therefore, I have not bought any biscuits and I have made all the ones we have eaten at home. This not only avoids palm oil, but also greatly reduces plastic packaging since most of the ingredients (including the butter) come in paper or glass.

The key to a good biscuit (rather than a cookie), according to Sue, is to use a hard fat. The choice comes down to butter or hard white vegetable fat. However, it turns out that the latter (e.g. Trex) is made from palm oil. So, I’m sorry vegans, but all the successful biscuits I have made have contained butter.

I’m going to share the four recipes here, for those of you who also want to make your own. The measures are in the original units in which each recipe was written, so there is a mix of ounces and grams.

Ginger nuts

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ginger nuts

 

8oz SR flour
2 heaped teaspoons ground ginger
4oz sugar (white or golden granulated)
3oz butter
4oz golden syrup
1 egg

Mix the dry ingredients, melt the butter and syrup, mix everything together. Shape teaspoonfuls into rough balls and press down a little, then arrange on greased baking trays with plenty of room to spread. Bake at 150C for 15 mins or until golden and becoming crisp. Cool on a rack and put in tin as soon as cold.

Shortbread Biscuits (Mr Snail’s favourite, especially dipped in chocolate)

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We love shortbread biscuits

200g butter (soft)
100g caster sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
250g plain flour
50g ground rice

Cream together butter, sugar and vanilla, work in the flour and rice. Roll out to 1/4 inch thick, cut into rounds (or hearts) and bake at 160C for 15-20 mins.

Granny Boyd’s biscuits

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lovely and chocolatey

 

250g butter
125g caster sugar
300g SR flour
30 g cocoa powder

Cream together butter and sugar. Sift cocoa and flour together and work into mixture. Form into walnut sized balls and arrange on trays. Flatten slightly with the back of a fork. Bake at 170C for 5 mins then turn the oven down to 150C for another 10-15 mins. The top should be firm and the inside slightly squidgy – they firm as they cool.

Digestive biscuits from a Victorian recipe

16 Biscuits 2

digestives

 

4oz fine oatmeal
2oz wholemeal flour
2oz white plain flour
2oz soft brown sugar
Quarter of a teaspoon of salt
Half a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda
3oz butter
1 egg

Rub the butter into the dry ingredients and then add the egg. Mix well. Roll out to about 0.25-0.5 cm, cut into rounds and place on a baking tray. Bake at 190C for 10-15 minutes. Allow them to cool and if they aren’t crispy enough I put them back in the oven for another 5 minutes.

I would add another recipe to my collection of favourite biscuits and that’s Delia Smith’s chocolate chip ginger nuts, the recipe for which is here. These are very rich and very delicious:

16 Biscuits 13

chocolate ginger nuts with chocolate chips

So, do you have a favourite biscuit recipe to share?

 

 

Finish as you mean to go on

So, here we are on the last day of the year…

I don’t make new year’s resolutions, I believe that when you want to make a change in your life you should do it when it’s right for you. Making resolutions because someone has told you that you ought to means you are much more likely to fail. However, it’s good to take stock sometimes and today is as good a time as any to do so. For me, 2016 has  involved lots more little steps to have a smaller negative impact on the planet and make life a little better for the people who live on it: from trying to be responsible for less plastic packaging (using soap and shampoo bars, taking our own bags and containers to the shops, seeking out products packaged in paper/cardboard/not at all), to growing lots of food; from undertaking lots of mending, to trying to cut out palm oil.

Today has been no exception: I started with a little pile of garments to mend:

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a variety of mends needed

I started by repairing a pocket of a pair of Mr Snail’s jeans. It had been repaired once before, but a new split had appeared so I used mending tape and a little piece of scrap cotton. The previous mend was spotty and the new one is checks, but only you and I know because they are hidden inside the pocket.

Next I replaced the toggles on my hand-knitted hoodie. The previous ones were glass and two of the three had broken. Before that it had wooden toggles and Sam ate them. This time I’ve used plastic, which I hope will be more durable.

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fingers crossed these never need replacing

Then I darned two pairs of hand-knitted socks. Mr Snail is very hard on his socks, so this is something of an ongoing chore.

My next job was to salvage the usable parts of the underwear that I made with my old sewing machine. Most of the pieces will be reused and stitched together using my new overlocker.

And finally, in my ongoing biscuit quest I made Granny Boyd’s Biscuits… a Nigella recipe that came my way via my friend Sue. The verdict: delicious and really easy to make, plus no palm oil. Thank you Sue, these are going to be a regular bake from now on.

So I have finished the year in the spirit that I intend to live in 2017. How about you? Do you make resolutions? Do you have plans?

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…

 

From underwear to underarms

This week, whilst we are addressing delicate issues, let’s talk about deodorant. As regular readers will know, I’m trying to move away from items that come packaged in plastic and to use products that don’t include petrochemicals as ingredients. I do think that there is a place for plastic, but its indiscriminate use does annoy me. Over the past few years I’ve managed to reduce the amount of stuff in the bathroom that comes wrapped in plastic and to make some of my own toiletries so I know what’s in them:

  • my manual toothbrush is made of bamboo (although I also use an electric toothbrush that is plastic)
  • my shampoo is bought in bulk to minimise the packaging, and when the current lot is used up I plan to start using a solid shampoo bar (less water transported around the country and, hopefully, no plastic in the packaging and all-natural ingredients with no palm oil)
  • I make my own moisturiser and although some of the ingredients come in plastic, there’s a lot less packaging overall than when buying jars of fancy lotions and creams
  • I stopped using shower gel/liquid hand wash and now only use soap, from  either It’s Baaath Time or The All Natural Soap Company. The latter use no plastic at all in their packaging, whilst the former is under new ownership (by a friend of mine) and I’m not sure what the packaging will be like from now on, but I know it won’t be excessive. Neither company use artificial additives or palm oil.
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a lot less plastic than before

Thus, most of my basic needs are now being covered in a plastic-reduced, ethical ingredients way apart from toothpaste and deodorant. I can’t bear to give up toothpaste and I’m not even going to try to make my own… it’s just one step too far for me. I do, however, buy an ‘ethical’ brand. Deodorant, though, seemed easily doable after reading this blog post by Jen Gale. Best of all, I had all the ingredients – coconut oil, bicarbonate of soda, cornflour and essential oils – already in the house. Basically, you mash everything up together (6-8 tbsps coconut oil, ¼-½ cup bicarb, ¼ cup cornflour, a few drops of essential oils), put it in a pot and then rub it in as required (the coconut oil melts with the heat from your skin and is absorbed very quickly). I made the whole job easy by using my Kenwood mixer to do the combining of ingredients, but you can just use a fork. The choice of essential oils is personal, but I used six drops each of orange, tea tree and mint.

I made mine a couple of weeks ago, so I have had chance to test it out before writing, and I can report that it seems to work. I guess that, like all deodorants, if you were  exercising vigorously, it wouldn’t stand a chance, but for everyday wear it seems good. Of course, if you are looking for an antiperspirant, this will not do the job, but I’m not convinced that it’s healthy to block your sweat glands – there are good reasons to sweat! The choice of essential oils is up to you, which means that you can use a mix of perfumes to suit your nose and that these can be as strong or subtle as you like. I especially like peppermint, as it makes the skin tingle a little.

This seems to be a relatively easy win for me – the mixture is quick to make, I didn’t have to buy any special ingredients and I just use it as normal as part of my regular morning routine. And so far no one has complained about the way I smell… but if I start spending more time with my on-line friends than my face-to-face ones, you’ll know why!

What the SLS?

I really shouldn’t write a blog… especially posts addressing my ethical dilemmas. Every time I do, I just open up a whole new can of worms for myself. The first time it happened was about knitting yarn ethics… to such an extent that I actually ended up making a whole can of yarn worms:

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Yesterday’s post was about single-use plastics, but initiated a discussion about shampoo, leading me to start looking at various packaging-free or reduced packaging shampoo options. One of the manufacturers suggested was Lush, who make shampoo bars that some commenters really like and a bit of internet research revealed that there are several ‘green’ writers who endorse these products (Ecohustler, for example). So, I headed over to the Lush website to look at what they have to offer. I know that some Lush products are very highly scented and this is no good for me because perfumes make me sneeze (a lot), so I thought that I would look at the ingredients to see what they were likely to smell of. And at this point, I discovered that all Lush shampoo bars list Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) as an ingredient.For example, the ingredients of the Lush Trichomania shampoo bar are:

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Stearic Acid, Creamed Coconut, Glyceryl Stearate & PEG-100 Stearate, Cocamide DEA, Soya Lecithin, Perfume, Vetivert Oil

Now I have heard that SLS is not good and I’m not a big fan of products that contain soya and what on earth are PEG-100 Stearate and Cocamide DEA? Well, apparently PEG-100 Stearate is an emulsifier and Cocamide DEA is a surfactant that either dissolves grease or is a foaming agent (depending on which web site you read). The latter is now illegal in California, as it is considered a carcinogen. As for SLS, there is conflicting information on the web, the web site SLS Free says that

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (commonly known as SLS) is a widely used chemical in personal hygiene products, along with Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) and Ammonium Laurel Sulfate (ALS).

SLS is essentially a foaming agent in products such as soaps, detergents, shampoos, toothpastes and detergents along with some industrial cleaning products such as engine degreaser, floor cleaning products and car wash. It is also widely used as a skin irritant when testing products used to heal skin irritations.

They go on to say that

At this point in time there is no scientific evidence that links the use of SLS to Cancer.

However

In addition to skin irritation, there are studies that point to residual levels of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate in the brain, lungs, liver, and heart. These levels follow the use of SLS used externally on the scalp and skin, and in the mouth as an ingredient in toothpaste.

There are some findings that link the ingredient to a hormone imbalance. Symptoms such as PMS and PMT and menopausal symptoms are tied to hormone levels. There has been a lower rate of male fertility reported in some cases, particularly in western countries however this is as yet unsubstantiated. Because SLS mimics oestrogen, it is possible it may play a role in these types of health issues.

In contrast, the Personal Care, Truth or Scare website is much more reassuring, stating that ‘by all green standards SLS is the perfect ingredient’ and there is no problem using it in ‘wash-off’ products. I’m not convinced about anything being ‘perfect’ and would take this claim with quite a pinch of salt considering that I subsequently discovered that much SLS is made from palm oil, at least according to the Say No to Palm Oil website, which rather shatters its green credentials. Lush are quiet about what their SLS is made from… it could be coconut oil, but I simply don’t know.

Single-use plastics, but what's inside?

Single-use plastics, but what’s inside?

Anyway, with all these questions about ingredients in the Lush soap bars, I thought I’d look at another product that yesterday’s readers had suggested, namely Faith in Nature shampoo. Now, the problem here is that using this would not cut out single-use plastics, but could significantly reduce them by buying in bulk. I already use FIN aloe shampoo in small bottles and could easily convert to buying it in 5l containers, so what is in that? The ingredients are listed as:

Aqua, Ammonium laureth sulfate, Maris sal, Aloe barbadensis leaf juice, Polysorbate 20, Cocamidopropyl betaine, Citrus limon peel oil, Citrus aurantifolia oil, Melaleuca alternifolia leaf oil, Potassium sorbate, Sodium benzoate, Citric acid, CI 75810, Citral, Limonene

Well, I know that Aqua is water, and I’m ok with that , apart from the transportation issues. The words that I have italicised are botanical names of plants (trust me, I’m a plant ecologist!) and I’m happy with using the essential oils from those, and maris sal is sea salt. But what about that Ammonium laureth sulfate? It sounds awfully like Sodium Lauryl Sulfate to me. Back to Googling again…

I found what looks like a really well researched page on the Green People website (I sometimes use their shampoo too) that answers the question (and gives lots more info on SLS). They say:

There are several other surfactants with similar names to SLS – in particular ammonium lauryl sulphate and ammonium laureth sulphate. Although these sound very similar their molecular structure is significantly different and they do not have the same potential to irritate the skin. Also, because their molecules are larger than those of SLS, they are not able to pass through the skin and therefore cannot be absorbed into the body in the same way. Because of these differences, ammonium lauryl and laureth sulphates are considered to be milder and safer alternatives to SLS.

So that sounds like a better option. As to the other ingredients Polysorbate 20 is another emulsifier, and can be contaminated according to this website. I guess any ingredient can be contaminated and we have to choose whether we trust the supplier. Cocamidopropyl betaine is a surfactant (giving the shampoo it’s lathering and cleansing properties) and can cause skin irritation, but is not considered a particularly ‘bad’ ingredient according to the notes at the bottom of the Chemical of the Day website from Bumblebee Organics. Potassium sorbate is a preservative and can be an irritant, but is used in food as well as personal care products (more details here); similarly, sodium benzoate is a preservative and whilst there are some concerns about its use in foodstuffs, it is reportedly safe in skin care products. Citric acid is fine with me and it turns out that CI 75810 is chlorophyll… clearly used to colour the shampoo. Both Citral and Limonene occur naturally in citrus as well as in other plants and are used as fragrances.

So, on balance, the Faith in Nature shampoo seems better than the Lush in terms of ingredients. But there is more to consider: liquid shampoo contains lots of water and thus adds to transportation costs compared to solid shampoo. The liquid shampoo is also sold in those pesky single-use bottles. But, by buying it in 5l containers, the amount of plastic is reduced and I get a sturdy receptacle that I will use again in the house or garden.

Yet again, when making ethical choices there isn’t a simple ‘right’ answer. I just wish, like Rachel who commented yesterday, I had a herbalist down the road who made their own and would refill a bottle for me… lucky Rachel!

-oOo-

I should say that all this research relies on finding reliable websites. I have seen many sites that appear to be scaremongering and many that seem to be marketing specific products. I have tried to use sources that look sensible, but I may have been duped! It appears that if you type the name of any chemical into Google, you can find sites telling you that it is a carcinogen or an irritant… I guess most things are in certain circumstances or high enough concentrations. Certainly plant essential oils can be really dangerous if used inappropriately. If you find a site that seems to be well referenced (like the Green People page I mention above) I think you can be more confident that it’s factually correct, but you never know. Researching this sort of thing is a complete minefield and very time-consuming, but hopefully I have started to present some useful information for you to make some informed choices.

All in a lather

Today I am very excited about soap… I have just spoken to the lovely Jo from Mill Cottage Soap in Llandrindod Wells. And some small samples will be on their way to me soon so that I can select some soaps to start making wash balls with.

Woolly wash balls... soon to be filled with lovely soap from Mill Cottage Soap

Woolly wash balls… soon to be filled with lovely soap from Mill Cottage Soap

I’m really pleased to have found someone in Wales who is producing their soap in a way that’s kind to the environment. I was particularly keen to buy soap that doesn’t have palm oil in it. I know that it is possible to buy ‘sustainable’ palm oil, but there are still concerns about the lack of regulation in this sector and the fact that pristine forest land in Indonesia and Malaysia is being lost to new plantations.

However, Jo uses mostly olive oil plus some coconut and sunflower oils. She uses essential oils, such as lavender, geranium and orange to scent the soap and adds no colours. We discussed the relative merits and qualities of soaps made out of different oils and talked about the soap making process and what types of soap are popular and I feel comfortable that I have chosen a good company to buy from.

I have written previously about keeping money in the local economy, and using Mill Cottage Soap will allow me to do this too. In addition, I can go over and collect. I travel quite regularly from my home in west Wales to Shropshire and Herefordshire, and Llandrindod is on the way. I will thus be able to save on postage, cut down the packaging and reduce my ‘soap miles’!

So, any requests for specific scents? I quite fancy Rosehip and Geranium, but I think Lemon and Lime or Peppermint and Tea Tree both sound very refreshing. And then there’s Bergamot and Patchouli, which sounds quite exotic… so many choices!

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