Little Crifts Cottage – Raising the Roof

Originally posted on Little Crifts Cottage, Cornwall - The Big Build!:

What a difference a fortnight can make!

Site webcam from Monday 14 SeptemberLast Wednesday morning, less than three weeks ago, the cottage consisted of completed foundations, a block and beam floor, and a single course of block-work marking out the internal and external walls.

This was a little frustrating, as we had been anticipating that the wall panels would arrive on site and start to be assembled on Tuesday.

The walls in question had in fact appeared, as scheduled, on the back of a lorry on Tuesday morning. But despite the hauliers promising that their lorry would definitely fit through our narrow entrance and over the cattle grid… Well, it didn’t – and wasn’t going to, at least not without us demolishing our neighbour’s fence. Late in the afternoon one of our friendly local farmers kindly came to save us with a tractor and a bale handler, and at least the panels were finally safely…

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Little Crifts Cottage – finding our footings

Originally posted on Little Crifts Cottage, Cornwall - The Big Build!:

After discussions with Mark, our architect, and Ellie, our project manager from the timber frame company, we decided on an approach which would both minimise the number of heavy vehicles which needed access to the site, and which reduced the amount of concrete being poured or otherwise assembled into the ground to an absolute minimum. These priorities came from pragmatism (our access is a bit narrow, and shared with our neighbours – it was important to minimise damage to the drive and above all nuisance to our neighbours) and also out of our desire wherever possible to make environmentally responsible choices.

Digging the trenches

We hoped to minimise excavations; thankfully the building regulations inspector came and peered into our relatively shallow foundation trenches and was content with what he found there – a subsoil commonly found locally known as ‘shillet’, made up of broken up soft slate and shale. This meant we could get on…

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Little Crifts Cottage – clearing the ground

Originally posted on Little Crifts Cottage, Cornwall - The Big Build!:

The old barn, sadly, was a hopeless case, timbers rotten through and barely held together by the equally rusted corrugated panels. It’s been some time since we’ve been happy to step inside it for any length of time, and I’m quite surprised that last winter’s storms didn’t do for it completely – they did however leave some quite impressive gaping holes, and, what with the increasingly obvious double-pitch roof ‘feature’, it was clear that the structure was becoming increasingly unsafe and something had to be done to deal with it.

The old barn
On one of the warmest days of the year, at the end of June, some good friends came to give us a hand to take the barn down. In the end, the old building put up surprisingly little resistance, the rotten timbers came away more or less painlessly at ground level after we removed the corrugated metal, eventually leaving just…

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And Now For Something Completely Different – are you an aspiring smallholder?

One of the nice things about writing a blog is that people email you out of the blue from time to time to say nice things about it. Often they want to sell you something, of course, but isn’t that the Internet all over? Anyway, today I got a message from Eve White, who works in programme development at the BBC; as well as being ever so nice about the blog, she wondered if I knew anyone who might be able to help them out finding a family to participate in a programme they’re making.

Now, this isn’t really the kind of blog where I’d normally post this sort of request, but I just have sneaky suspicion that this might suit some of my lovely readers here down to the ground – so, if you’re considering taking on a smallholding or wanting to take bigger steps towards a self sufficient lifestyle, listen up, this may be for you!

Copied below is Eve’s email to me and her contact details. Please contact her directly, if you’re interested in participating, as she won’t be checking comments here!

My name is Eve and I work in the programme development team in BBC Bristol. We’re looking at a new daytime programme idea featuring Paul Martin (antiques expert who presents the BBC1 show ‘Flog It!’ – but also happens to be a smallholder) whereby families thinking of leaving behind the urban life for a new one in the countryside try their hand at smallholding challenges at Paul’s home.

It might be that you and your family have always dreamt of giving everything up to move to your own piece of land in the countryside, or that you’ve climbed the career ladder for long enough and want the chance to become self-sufficient, or that being a smallholder has always been pushed aside in the face of the reality of your day-to-day lives.

We are looking to film what’s known as a taster tape – a short preview film to give a flavour of how the programme might look and feel – with Paul and a family who are considering this change of lifestyle in around two weeks time. This isn’t for broadcast, but will help show our commissioners the potential for a brand new series for BBC1. This will involve a bit of filming with you to find out more about why you’d like to leave the rat race and move to the country, and some hands-on practical smallholding challenges at Paul’s farm in the south west.

We’re looking to film in about two weeks time on the 21st September, so you’d need to be available then.

If you think you and your family might be up for the challenge, or have somebody in mind who you would recommend, please get in touch via my email address and I will respond as promptly as possible.

So, if that sounds like you, and you fancy the experience of TV without the stress of actually ending up on the box, why not drop Eve a line?

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Little Crifts Cottage – how the story began

Kate's Country Skills:

If you were wondering what we’ve been up to lately… It’s this!

Originally posted on Little Crifts Cottage, Cornwall - The Big Build!:

In June of 2014, a little over a year ago, we arrived in our new home in North Cornwall, just outside the lovely moorland village of Altarnun. The move to this beautiful part of the world is something that we had spoken about doing for many years, though in truth we rather suspected it might need to wait for our retirement! But life had other ideas, and when some kind Whitehall bureaucrat decided that they needed a high speed rail line to Birmingham, and that this line – the HS2 high speed railway – would be going straight through the garden of our pretty Northamptonshire cottage, it was time to take things into our own hands, and take the plunge.

The old barn

We were incredibly lucky to find a home on the very edge of Bodmin Moor, one of Cornwall’s wild beauty spots and an AONB, tucked away but within easy reach of the…

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Sourdough Saga: Episode 8 – semi-sourdough baguettes

It’s difficult to believe that it’s over three years since sourdough baking became a regular part of our life and our diet, back in May 2012. I predicted at the time that life would never be quite the same again and, in a variety of small ways, that’s definitely true. A lot has changed in our lives since then, but home baking has remained a constant despite upheavals and long working hours. We make a mix of sourdough and traditionally-yeasted breads at home, and they’re all wonderful in their own ways; the bar is set very high for bought breads and when time precludes home-baking, we’re inevitably disappointed by what we can buy in the shops.

Fresh from the oven

Bread can seem like such a small, inconsequential thing, a cheap commodity which requires very little consideration. But good bread – really good bread – is a thing of great joy, not an afterthought but the crowning glory of a meal, or even a meal in itself. Still warm from the oven, with wonderful cornish unsalted butter melting into the crumb, I wonder if there is any more satisfying food in the world?

My wholemeal sourdough starter, ‘Seymore’, continues to thrive, and in some sense procreated last year when I started the process of converting a batch of starter to white flour. Each white flour feed progressively shifted the proportions and the starter is now 100% white. I find the white starter raises white loaves quite a bit more effectively than the wholemeal one did (presumably because the balance of microbes within it is already adapted to using white flour as a food source), so now like raises like – Seymore has an outing when I’m baking wholemeal or spelt, and the new white starter makes a quite wonderful, airy and chewy 100% white sourdough loaf.

A year or more ago, I had a hankering for home-made baguette. Initial experiments and trials with recipes in my cookbook library were all rather disappointing – they produced baguette-shaped loaves, but lacked not just the flavour, but also the crumb and the chewy, toothsome, slightly elastic crust of a genuine French loaf. French cookbooks, of course, were no use whatsoever – no French housewife in her right mind bakes her own bread, when there’s still a traditional ‘boulangerie’ in almost every village and on almost every street corner.

So I kept reading, and asking questions, and stumbled upon Paul Hollywood’s recipe from his pre-TV ‘100 Great Breads’ book, which begins with an overnight sponge, much like my everyday sourdough loaf. A bake through of his recipe produced one of the worst-behaved doughs I have ever worked with, but also gave me the best results to date. But it was still most definitely lacking ‘something’ in the flavour and texture departments. The sponge step, though, gave me an idea – what if I incorporated some of my white sourdough starter into the mix? Might that add, not just the complex savoury flavour that was lacking, but also the chewy elasticity to the crust? I had to experiment.

A year of trials later, I have a process that, while it’s not a ‘novice bake’, works very well and reliably for me, and as a bonus, can even be baked the same day you start if you forget to start the sponge the night before baking. It’s a ‘hybrid’ bread, making use of both the sourdough starter and of bakers’ yeast (much as many commercial loaves labelled as ‘sourdough’ do!). And while the results can sometimes look a little ‘wobbly’ and rustic, they have every bit of the flavour and characteristics of the loaves I enjoyed for my breakfast on a visit to Paris back in March. Torn in half, with unsalted butter and jam and a big mug of coffee, I challenge you to find a better everyday breakfast.

Of course, you can bake these loaves without the sourdough starter – you’ll be baking something like Paul Hollywood’s original recipe, and it’s not bad, but it’s just not the same!

To make these semi-sourdough baguettes, you will require –

  • Ingredients200g of 100% hydration white sourdough starter (that is, made up of 100g of flour and 100g of water), which has been ‘fed’ within the last 24hours. You’ll need to adjust the quantities of ingredients if your starter is balanced differently.
  • 400g of French bread flour (you can use British-style strong white bread flour, but the texture and flavour aren’t quite right; you’re going to a fair bit of trouble for these loaves, so it’s worth tracking down the good stuff!)
  • 200ml of water at room temperature (or gently lukewarm on a cold day or when short of time)
  • 1tsp or a 7g sachet of dried instant yeast
  • 1tsp salt (this is my personal preference – recipes often double this quantity)
  • 50g of softened unsalted butter
  • Oil for kneading, and
  • Semolina for dusting the baking sheet

Make up the overnight spongeIdeally the night before, combine the 200g of starter with 100g of flour and 200ml of water, add the spoonful of instant yeast, and combine to create a thin batter. A whisk can be helpful. Cover with cling-film and set aside overnight, or, if you’re not that organised, for at least an hour and more if possible.

The overnight sponge after mixingThe loaves will work fine with the shorter resting period but you’re inevitably sacrificing some flavour from the longer, slower fermentation. After resting, there should be some bubbles rising to the surface of your batter (more if you’ve left it overnight).

Roughly mix the dough and allow to restNow add the remaining 300g of flour, the salt and the softened (melted is fine) butter, and combine to make what will be a very soft, wet dough. Before kneading, just let it sit in the bowl for about half an hour to allow the flour grains to absorb as much as possible of the moisture and help the gluten start to set up.

Dough during kneadingTip the dough onto a well oiled worktop, scraping out any that sticks to the bowl, and knead it for at least 10 minutes. It will be very sticky to start with, but this will improve to some extent with working. Try to resist adding extra flour unless absolutely essential, and if you do, add a very little at a time. This is never going to be an easy dough to work, you’re aiming to get it just on the right side of ‘impossible’. Working it with plenty of oil will reduce its tendency to stick to things other than itself, and avoids changing the hydration with flour from surfaces being incorporated into the dough.

Form a ball and allow to riseOnce the dough is well kneaded, form a ball and set aside in a well oiled bowl, loosely covered with plastic or a tea towel to retain moisture, until it has at least doubled in size.

Divide risen dough into threeNow, turn the dough out onto a well-oiled worktop and divide it into three as evenly as you can, but without faffing about (no grabbing a bit from here and sticking it onto there). You’ll see recipes instructing you to ‘roll the dough out into a baguette shape’, but don’t, ok? What you’ll get it you do that is a stodgy, even-textured dough shaped like a baguette (much as you get from most UK supermarkets, sadly). If you want the stretched curst and almost concentric-structured crumb of a genuine baguette, you need to form the shape properly. I got the clue I needed, oddly, from a TV travel show about Paris, where they popped into a boulangerie, and there in the background, when I paused and re-wound the programme, was a guy making baguettes. This way is rather fiddly, but it works!

First, find your widest, shallowest-sided baking sheet, and dust it generously with semolina. This will stop the dough sticking, and provides the characteristic ‘crunch’ to the base.

Shaped loaves on baking sheetTake each piece of dough, and fold two edges towards the centre. Without turning the dough, do this again and again in the same direction until you have quite a tight ‘cylinder’ with a centre seam on top, which will be about a third or half the length it needs to be. Now stretch out the cylinder lengthwise, gently, trying to keep the diameter even all the way along. Turn the baguette over so that it’s seam-side down, and tidy in the ends by tucking under into the traditional point if you can, though don’t worry if the ends are a bit dumpy. Tuck the sides under along the length of the loaf using a dough scraper, if you have one, and then, quickly so that it doesn’t sag, transfer the loaf to the baking sheet.

This takes some practice and your first baguettes will probably be rather funny shapes. But don’t worry – it’s not at all important! The process is a bit tricky to describe (I wonder if I should try and get a video of me shaping a loaf?) but hopefully should make sense once you’re doing it.

You could just as easily quarter your dough and make four shorter baguettes; arrange them across the baking sheet rather than along, if you prefer littler loaves. The smaller loaves are obviously easier to handle, so it may make sense to start that way.

Cook-shops will sell you shaped baking sheets with rounded bottoms for baking baguettes on, and that will give you the characteristic rounded base – baking on a flat sheet will obviously give you a flat bottom, though as the dough springs up in the oven it’s often less obvious than you might expect. I’ve tried quite hard to avoid acquiring clutter and kitchen gadgets during my home baking experiments, and actually I find most of the time you can do perfectly well without them!

Cover and allow to riseCover your shaped loaves (I have a large sheet of polythene that I use to form a tent over them) and leave to rise for at least an hour or until at least doubled in size. Now set your oven to pre-heat at its highest temperature.

Slash the risen loaves along their lengthOnce the oven is up to temperature, uncover your loaves, and very quickly using your sharpest knife, slash diagonally along the length. I find two slashes per loaf works best, overlapping over the centre third to half of the loaf. If you hesitate at this stage, your loaves will deflate a lot, so be quick and decisive, and get the loaves straight into the oven.

Turn the baking sheet at least once to help the loaves bake evenly. You may find they need as little as 20 minutes in all – they’re done once the crust is a lovely deep golden to mid brown colour and the loaves feel crispy and sound hollow underneath. Remove them from the oven then and set to cool on a wire rack.

Tear & enjoy

Once they’re (almost!) cool, rip into one. I love to tear rather than slicing my baguette, it makes the most of the wonderful texture of the crust and crumb. Enjoy as the Parisiens do, with unsalted butter and jam for breakfast, or as the ultimate versatile sandwich loaf. Who wants one of those nasty stodgy ‘subs’?

Enjoy with unsalted butter

I would really love to know how you get on with this recipe, so please please come and tell me how it works out for you, by leaving a comment here or tweeting me @CountrySkills!

Read all the posts in the Sourdough Saga >>

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No Weigh! – the bake-anywhere, traveller’s loaf

On holiday in self catering accommodation, staying in hostels, on a campsite, or even visiting family or friends, have you ever felt the urge to bake a lovely fresh loaf of bread only to discover that a key piece of equipment – usually a set of scales, or a measuring jug – is missing? I may be a bit odd, but I’ve even been known to go out and buy the missing piece of kit just to get my loaf baked! Since then, I’ve given the question some thought, done a few experiments, and so today I’m going to share with you my ‘no weigh’, measurement free, (nearly!) foolproof loaf recipe that you can bake very nearly anywhere, with almost no kitchen equipment.

Sliced, warm from the oven.

To make this loaf, the bare minimum equipment you require is –

  • A flat work surface or large chopping board
  • A teaspoon
  • Some sort of a liquid container (a pint glass or mug is ideal)
  • Something to bake your loaf on or in (a roasting tray, a pie tin, or whatever)
  • An oven (if you’re camping, you can even bake bread in a dutch oven, though you’ll need to adapt the process a little)

If you can also lay your hands on any of the following, it will make things a little easier –

  • A mixing bowl
  • Spatula or dough scraper
  • A plastic bag or tea towel
  • A sharp knife

And now the ingredients –

  • IngredientsStrong white bread flour
  • Dried instant yeast (a sachet, or from a pot)
  • Table salt
  • Water
  • Cooking oil (a light-flavoured olive oil is ideal, but whatever comes to hand)

Just a quick note first on difficulty – because this recipe depends, essentially, on judging the ‘feel’ of the dough to get the proportions right, complete novice bakers may struggle with this approach; but you don’t need to be an expert baker – if you’ve made a few loaves before, and have a sense of what a good dough should feel like, this technique will hopefully work well for you!

So, time to begin.

Make a well in the flourCheck how much flour is in your packet (standard packs of UK flour are usually 1.5kg but can be 1kg or even 3kg) and tip your best guess at 500g into your bowl or on to the work surface. Make a well in the centre, and add a heaped teaspoon of instant yeast (or a whole 7g sachet) and a teaspoon of salt. I tend to add the yeast to the well and the salt to the side.

It’s useful if you have an approximate idea of the volume of your liquid container. (You’re likely to need about half a pint of water, or a little over.) Fill your glass or mug with lukewarm water and add it a little at a time to the well in your flour, mixing as you go. If you’re using a work surface rather than a bowl you are, I’m afraid, likely to make rather a mess, so do use a mixing bowl if you have access to one. Salad bowls or other serving bowls can make a good substitute.

Form a sticky doughKeep adding water until all the flour is incorporated into your dough and the texture is a bit stickier than you really think it ought to be. The dough at this stage ought to be a bit tricky to work with and glue itself to everything. The reason for getting it to this stage is to make sure that the dough isn’t under-hydrated, as this is is the main cause of stodgy, disappointing loaves which don’t rise properly.

Dough after kneadingPour a generous glug of oil over your dough and work surface and start to knead the dough in the oil. Add more oil every if the dough gets sticky again. The process of kneading will mix the moisture evenly through your dough and you may well find the dough stops being excessively sticky just through the kneading process. But if you’ve been kneading for ten minutes or so and the dough is still too sticky, add an extra sprinkle of flour. Go gently with the flour, though, as I find it always needs less than it seems to get the texture of the dough nice and silky.

Cover with whatever you have to handOnce you’re happy with your dough, and it’s well kneaded, form it into a ball, oil it well, and set it aside in an oiled bowl if you have one (or leave it on the worktop). Cover the dough loosely – a supermarket plastic bag is ideal, or use cling film if you have it, or a tea towel, or anything else that comes to hand! Set aside to rise until the dough at least doubles in size.

Doubled doughOnce the dough has doubled (which may take as little as an hour, but could take quite a bit longer in cold conditions – be patient and don’t rush this bit!) turn the dough out onto an oiled surface.

Turn dough outNow, very gently, form it into a bloomer shape. I’m going to stress the ‘gently’ bit again, because it’s very tempting to get stuck in and almost re-knead the dough at this stage, and that’s not what you want to do at all. You’ll hear a lot of talk of ‘knocking back’ dough, but you’ll lose a lot of the air in the dough just in the shaping process.

Formed bloomerTo form a bloomer (the shape you want for a bread tin is very similar), I fold both long ends towards the middle, then rotate the dough 90 degrees and do the same from the side. Then I turn the dough seam-side down and tuck the sides and ends under neatly. That’s it. No kneading, no bashing, just some gentle folding. You can form a round cob loaf by bringing the edges into the centre until you form make a general round, before turning the loaf over seam-down and tucking the bottom under neatly.

Dust your baking sheet well with flour and place the bloomer in the centre of it. If you’re using a tin (or tin-substitute) I would oil or butter it first before dusting well with flour. Dust the top of your loaf with flour too, and put it back under loose cover somewhere warm for another hour or so.

Well-risen bloomerWhen the loaf is well risen, pre-heat your oven as hot as it will go. Take the cover off your loaf, and cut a straight slash down the centre with a sharp knife if you have one (or a more creative pattern, if you fancy!) and pop it straight into the centre of the oven.

The loaf will probably take around 30 minutes to bake, but this will depend on the quirks of the oven, which you probably aren’t familiar with, so take a first look around 20 minutes and then keep your eye on things pretty closely. If you happen to have access to a wood fired pizza oven, you can even use this – just remember that these tend to run very hot so baking times will be quite a lot shorter! Turn the loaf once or twice to avoid any hot spots in the oven baking the loaf unevenly, or even burning it.

The loaf is ready when the top is dark golden and crispy, and the base sounds hollow when tapped. If in doubt, put it back for 5 minutes – over-baking a loaf a a little is never a disaster – it just increases the thickness and crispiness of the crust – whereas an under-cooked stodgy middle is decidedly disappointing. If you have an oven rack to hand, set it to cool on this.

Fresh from the oven

There you go – a no-weigh, no-measure, home made, very tasty rustic white loaf, that you really can make almost anywhere you can get your hands on a few very basic ingredients & equipment. No excuse for rubbish bread this summer, then. Enjoy!

What did I do with mine?

Cucumber sandwich time!

Well, it was late lunch when it came out of the oven, so I sliced it, still warm (I know, but it’s irresistible, right?) and made an old-fashionned but wonderful cucumber sandwich with one of our home-grown cucumbers, harvested yesterday evening from the polytunnel. A little taste of summer heaven!

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The Eurovision Drinking Game – 2015 Edition

Well, folks, it’s that time of year again! The 60th Eurovision Song Contest will take place in Vienna, Austria, this coming Saturday May the 23rd. Where has the time gone?

This game is becoming a bit of a fixture on the blog, and slowly but surely is gathering a loyal following! Last year the Dutch broadcaster Pow.ned even recommended it to their viewers as part of their Eurovision coverage. How about that then?

Flags!Like so many good and worthwhile ideas, these rules started life at a university party, well over a decade ago. They have been carefully curated and updated over the years, and play-tested by a number of kind ‘volunteers’, some of whom even recalled enough the next morning to provide helpful feedback and suggestions! So, without further ado, I present to you – The Eurovision Drinking Game, 2015 Edition.

How to play –

This is a forfeit game. A variety of features of songs and the performances have been selected, and their appearance triggers a drinking forfeit. This is usually (but not always!) ‘take a swig’.

Shot glassesIt’s a really good idea to divide up the countries and songs between your players. You might do this by ballot, draw straws before each song, or adopt some other creative or arcane method of your choice. Smaller parties may chose not to allocate a player to every songs. All of the players playing for every song is likely to result in unpleasant consequences, and cannot be recommended!

The Competition –

Begin any song that you are playing with a fully-charged glass.

Certain features of the song and performance trigger a forfeit. These features can appear more than once in a performance (and sadly, often do!) and ‘score’ each time they appear – so the now legendary ‘Bucks Fizz’ skirt removal would represent a single costume change, because it happened in one go, but a song that repeatedly swaps languages or makes major-to-minor-and-back-again key transitions triggers a forfeit on each switch.

Take a drink for each instance of the following:

The song –

  • OrchestraChange of language
  • Change of key (take an extra swig if the key change is so egregiously telegraphed you can see it coming for miles)
  • Change of tempo
  • Wordless lyrics (da dum da, mana mana mana, lalalala)

The performer, costume and performance –

  • Folk DancersPerformer(s) not of nationality represented
  • Folk costume
  • Folk instrument
  • Folk dance
  • Weapons (with an extra-big swig if they’re ‘folk’ weapons – axes, pitchforks, flaming torches etc)
  • Uniforms – military & civil (including costume references to same – epaulettes, insignia, military-looking hats and suchlike)
  • Dubious uniformsOffice wear, three-piece-suits
  • Flags, banners, national symbols
  • Pyrotechnics, smoke, fog
  • Costume change
  • Bare feet, bare torsos
  • Underwear as outerwear
  • Spandex, lurex, sequins
  • Leather, rubber, PVC, bondage wear
  • LEDs or other lighting incorporated into costumes
  • Feather BoaFur, feathers, wings
  • Trapeze or wire-work
  • Magic, circus themes
  • ‘Booby Prize’ – if the performer does not appear to be human (note this rule applies whether or not the performer is human underneath!) – down the remains of your drink!

‘Fair Dinkum’ bonus 60th Anniversary Australian rule set –

In this auspicious 60th Eurovision year, we wish our friends from Down Under a warm G’day and welcome. Australia grants the Eurovision Song Contest similar cult status to back here in Blighty – as an international Gay Pride event and an excuse for a darn good piss-up. This year, our Australian friends have been invited to join in the fun as special guests! So for one year only (unless they win, of course, and get to come back next year) here are some ‘Fair Dinkum’ bonus rules to help get you absolutely roaring.

Australian ClicheAh, that beautiful Land Down Under, where blokes wrestle crocs or kangaroos while wearing hats with corks hanging off them. Gorgeous bronzed sheilas surfing on Bondi beach. Koalas, kookaburras, gum trees. Waltzing Matildas. Very large red rocks in the outback. Vegemite, tinnies, and prawns on the barbie. And all while upside down!

  • For any reference to an Australian cliché or stereotype by Graham Norton (or your national broadcast commentator), everyone takes a swig.
  • ‘Booby Prize’ – In the event that an Australian stereotype is referenced on the Eurovision stage (or Green Room), everyone downs the rest of their drink.

The half-time performance (or the ‘Riverdance’ slot) –

The host country puts on a performance on during the ‘voting gap’. Everyone plays for this segment, using the same forfeit list as for the songs.

For your convenience, I have made a ‘cut-out-and-keep’ forfeit card. Aren’t I thoughtful? Click for the full-size version, print it out and hand out copies at your party, or save to your mobile devices and share the Eurovision love!

Cut out and keep forfeit card

Graphics for the cut-out-and-keep forfeit card are use under Creative Commons licenses, see links for details: Flags by Anka Pandrea, Glasses by Nora Raaum.

Bottles and bottles

Voting –

The voting round should be considered advanced play, and may be unsuitable for novice players or those with a delicate constitution. These rules are intentionally kept simple. They need to be, by this time in the evening!

  • Before each set of results are announced, everyone guesses where the 12 points are going. If anyone gets this right, those who got it wrong take a swig.
  • ‘Booby Prize’ – Everyone downs their drink if the presenter gets the country they’re speaking to wrong, calls the national representative by the wrong name, or gets their pronunciation corrected by the national representative.


Well, that’s all, folks! Have fun at your Eurovision parties, and if you do decide to try these rules, please do comment here or tweet me @CountrySkills, where it’s quite likely some Eurovision live twittering may take place!

And remember, please drink responsibly (*ahem!*), and definitely don’t drink and drive, attempt DIY, deep fat frying, change important passwords or operate heavy machinery. Finally, your hangover is your problem, not mine, so don’t come crying to me in the morning!

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Reviewed – “Back to Basics – Your Essential Guide to Make Do and Mend”

I was really excited to be asked to review this brand new ebook, ‘Back to Basics – Your Essential Guide to Make Do and Mend’ edited by the lovely Jen Gale. Jen has been somewhat in the forefront of the eco, thrifty, make-do-and-mend trend in the blogosphere and social media over the last few years. During that time, she has accumulated a mountain of practical experience (do take a look at her website,, if you haven’t already) and connected with individuals with a wide variety of practical skills, many of whom contribute chapters to this ebook.

[Full disclosure: ‘Back to Basics – your essential guide to Make Do and Mend’ came to me free of charge as a review copy. Screenshots are used with permission. Any links provided are for interest and convenience, I don’t profit from them in any way. Jen is a twitter friend, and while I obviously wish her well with her project I have tried very hard to be fair and impartial in giving my opinions here.]

What’s in this book? Well, all kinds of things. Don’t know how to fix a puncture on your bike, or wire a plug? The instructions are here for you, alongside more ‘crafty’ tutorials on sewing skills – biased towards mending and altering – basic introductions for knitting and crochet, helpful hints on caring for your clothes and fabrics so they last you longer, tips on painting and re-upholstering furniture to refresh tired pieces without needing to buy new, and lots of other things besides.

Contents Page

Darning SkillsThis is intended to be an entry-level guide, and because it covers such a broad range of topics, some of the chapters will already be familiar territory to practical minded readers – that said, I did pick up a few extra little tips even in areas where I consider myself to be reasonably proficient (Tom Van Deijnen’s tutorial on darning knitwear is particularly good, as is Lauren Guthrie’s really comprehensive general overview and introduction to using and caring for your sewing machine).

Re-making GarmentsAlongside these, there are a few chapters that cover what I would regard as more advanced-skill level making do and mending – Franki Campbell explains how to break down a garment and make a new sewing pattern from it so that it can be recreated (and possibly modified in the process), something which scares me enough – I’m a muddling-along standard home sewer who can make curtains, blinds, and the odd garment for myself; I can imagine it being rather baffling to the novice sewer.

Crochet flowersThere are little projects included with some of the chapters, too, and these can be a weakness of the book. Some are excellent, like this little crochet flower broach. On the other hand, the knitted dish cloth ‘project’ (no more than a sample square of garter stitch, which you are expected to source brand new cotton yarn for) was a bit less inspiring.

I think this is probably an inevitable consequence of a book put together in this way, from a variety of contributors. The focus, skill level, and quality of these chapters does vary, and on occasion it can make the whole feel a bit ‘bitty’ and unfocused. But that said there is some really excellent material here, and if you find even a handful of the chapters useful it may well turn out to be a good purchase for you.

Cover ShotWho is the ideal reader for this book? It might make an good gift for a teenager heading off to university or to their own home for the first time – a really modern housekeeping guide for the 21st Century young adult. Older readers, looking to (re)discover crafty, thrifty DIY skills may also find a lot to like here. It’s a very beautifully put-together ebook, and a lot of hard work has obviously gone into the design and photography.

“Back to Basics” is available in ebook (PDF) format only, priced at £8. You can find out more, and download it here.

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Blocking Up – experimenting with peat-free soil blocks

I can’t quite remember where I first came across the idea of soil blocks for seed sowing, but they’re a rather neat idea. Compacted cubes of growing medium are used instead of pots or modules, freestanding seed trays with narrow air gaps between the blocks.

Big claims are made about the benefits of soil blocks for raising young plants in terms of reduced root disturbance and how ‘air-pruning’ of the roots prevents root binding of seedlings, all of which may well be true – I haven’t really got the horticultural background to say! But actually the thing that really attracted me to soil blocks was practicality.

Sowing seeds into soil blocks

I really don’t like module trays – they’re a pain to wash and re-use, if nothing else, they tend to degrade badly and crack up so that they only last two or three seasons, and are expensive and enormously wasteful if you’re using them only once. While it makes sense  to start certain seeds directly into 3″ pots, that takes up an awful lot of window sill space – something that’s definitely at a premium in my house at this time of year. And as we’re aiming to be completely peat free in the new garden, those little peat jiffy pots are right out (and the cost adds up quickly). A useful compromise has been home-made newspaper pots, but there’s quite a lot of effort involved in making these and I don’t always have time (also, my paper potter tool seems to have gone astray in the house move)! I’d more or less settled to using plain seed trays and pricking out seedlings at a small size, but that’s quite a lot of work and it can be rather traumatising for the seedlings, and has to be done at just the right time when inevitably I have too much else to do. So, no perfect solution.

Half trays of soil blocks in heated propagatorSoil blocks combine the convenience of the plain seed tray with the ‘modularisation’ provided by plastic module trays or individual paper pots – so could they be the best of both worlds?

Despite a real lack of cash just now, I decided to dig deep and find the twenty pounds for a four-block two inch cube soil block maker, which I bought from Only after diving in feet first with the purchase did I stop to consider the peat free problem; almost everything I read suggested that a peat-based seed compost was essential for making functional soil blocks. So had I just wasted my money?

Unwilling to compromise on our principles, I set about mining websites and gardening forums in search of a peat free recipe for soil blocks. None was quite right but some themes kept recurring. A base of peat free compost (fine textured seed compost ideally), something to help drainage (sand, perlite and vermiculite were variously mentioned) and loam or topsoil to help bind the mixture.

I’ve mentioned that money is a bit tight; going shopping for extra growing media is not on the cards, but I have a reasonable supply of New Horizon peat free organic multi-purpose compost and a rather soggy old bag of vermiculite (I generally use the New Horizon compost mixed 3:1 with vermiculite as my seed mix). We also have an almost inexhaustible supply of molehills, as the efforts of Mr Mole to create a ‘des-res’ for Mrs Mole are in full swing on our paddock!

So with a ‘make-do and mend’ attitude I did a few experiments and have come up with the following mix that seems, so far, to be working well for me. It will be the basis of my soil blocks for this season, while I get a handle on how things go germination-wise, and consists of –

  • Dry soil block mixture4 parts peat free multipurpose compost (you could sieve this to take out the biggest bits – but I’m fundamentally lazy and don’t own a garden sieve)
  • 1 part vermiculite, and
  • 1 part molehill (you should ideally sterilise this to get rid of weed seeds, I suppose, though it seems like faff) or substitute with bought topsoil (being careful it’s not been mixed with peat compost, as it often is!)

Wetted soil block mixMix the components thoroughly and then add water, a little at a time, until you reach a consistency that holds well together when you take a handful and give it a good squeeze. I find this is at the stage that you can just squeeze a tiny bit of water back out of the mix. Any wetter and the blocks slide straight out of the block maker – drier and the blocks tend to crumble. If you find you’ve over-wet the mix just add a bit more compost to dry it out again. A little trial and experimentation and you should get a good idea what you’re aiming for.

Filling the soil block makerTo make the blocks, level the wet compost mix about two and a half inches deep and as even as possible. Push the block maker down firmly into the compost until it hits the bottom, then push down on the handle without moving the press, to squeeze down on the blocks. You may squeeze a out a little water (if you’re seeing a lot, your mix is too wet). Then, release the handle and carefully pick up the block maker, tilting it on it’s side to reduce the risk of blocks falling out.

Making up soil blocks in seed trayPosition it where you want your blocks to go, and then press down on the handle again pulling the block maker up at the same time. If it’s all worked perfectly, you will have four even, neat little cubes each with a dimple in the middle. I find I can fit three rows of four blocks (12 blocks in total) into a half sized seed tray or seven rows of blocks (28 in all) in a full sized tray.

Half seed trays of soil blocksNow you’re ready to sow your seeds. Pop one seed into each dimple (or more than one if they’re small seeds and you plan to thin any extra seedlings) and cover loosely with a pinch of dry compost or vermiculite – or leave the seed uncovered if light is required for good germination. Then place the seed tray in your desired spot. I currently have two half trays of soil blocks in my heated propagator with tomato seeds in, and two full trays of salad leaves and brassicas in the unheated greenhouse.

Completed tray of soil blocksThe soil blocks are supposed to contain enough water to allow the seeds to germinate without further watering being required, but this depends on preventing excessive evaporation.

Covered seed trays in greenhouseI wrap the seed trays in the greenhouse with cling film (wetting the edge of the seed tray like a pie dish gives a good seal) and those in the heated propagator are under a closed lid. But if they do get a bit dry, don’t panic – mine held together fine when I watered them with a normal watering can and medium rose, just be gentle! Obviously you can’t use normal plant markers easily if you’re using cling film, so I label my trays using masking tape stuck to the seed tray. Keep your eyes open for signs of germination and remove the cling film before the seedlings reach it.

I’m waiting to see how things germinate in them now, and how they grow on, with no small degree of excitement!

Are you experimenting with soil blocks this year? How are you getting along?

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