Easily Hooked – oops, I seem to have taken up crochet!

We had so much to do in the garden this weekend, but the weather hasn’t been friendly!  At least we managed to get the turf cleared from the unpromising rectangle of old ridge & furrow grass which is to be my experimental cut flower patch – watch this space for more (and photos!) in due course.  The greenhouse seedlings continue to thrive, though I’m struggling to believe the tomato seedlings are ever going to grow up big and strong enough to fruit! This time of year in the garden is always a mix of hope and doubt, without much to show yet for our efforts!

Stormy spring beech tree

But it’s raining, and there’s nothing to be done outside for the time being!

I hate to have my hands unoccupied (stop giggling there in the back!) so I suppose it was only a matter of time before I gave in and took up crochet.  Many years ago (half a lifetime, really!) I learned to knit, got good enough at it to make myself a jumper, and mastered some fiddly cable work, but it never really grabbed me.  I’ve always been impressed by the flexibility of crochet work, the variety of shapes and textures which crochet seemed to be able to achieve compared to two-needle yarn craft.  And then, about three weeks ago, by chance, I stumbled over the first part of a learn-to-crochet part-work magazine, complete with a 3.5mm hook, two balls of yarn, and a guide to basic stitches. All for 99p.

Well, I couldn’t resist. I started tinkering with a few stitches and patterns from the starter pack.  I did a bit of playing and made a little round basket out of some jute garden twine, just to see if I could.  It’s the simplest thing, with just a circle of double crochet stitches for the base, made without turning, and sides the same, but turned between rows, picking up only the front loop of the  V to add a horizontal stripe.

Jute basket bottom    Jute Basket inside    Jute basket detail with twine

It makes a lovely coaster for the bottle-cut vase I made a few weeks ago, using the bottle cutting jig I made last year.  Better still, it was surprisingly easy to make, despite the less than promising choice of yarn!

Jute basket with bottle vase

So that was it, really, I was hooked.  Obviously a single hook and a big ball of garden twine wasn’t going to get me very far, so I scurried off to the internet for a few supplies (oops!) – a couple of books for inspiration, a lucky-dip selection of yarns, and of course a set of different sized hooks.  I was good to go!

What do you make first but a scarf? Of course!

Crochet scarfI’m really happy with my first effort, the pattern is from Sue Whiting’s ‘The Crochet Bible’, which has served me really well as a crochet primer so far!  For a complete novice it was a nice simple project which gave a pleasingly complex-looking result, and came together over the course of just over a week.  I used a heather-coloured yarn I got in my mystery-pack, and I’m thrilled with the result.  The photo doesn’t quite do it justice, it’s not as blue as that!

Dave kindly offered to model it for you all, so you can see it a bit more clearly. (He continues to do very well, thank you for asking!)

Dave the dog

Of course, I couldn’t stop at just the one project.  The current one is straight out of my own head, a crochet string-bag for the summer – I think it would be great for a day at the beach.  I’ve used two of the colours of yarn in my lucky-dip pack that I think I’d struggle to wear – an orange that can only be described as ‘health & safety high-viz’ and a bright sunny lemon yellow.  I’m after a relaxed, cool, hippy-ethnic look, and I think we’re headed in the right direction – more photos, and instructions, once it’s finished, but here’s a sneak-peek of the work in progress..!

String bag - work in progress

Finally, some sad news this weekend from my hens – Gertie, my white hen, and the final member of my original hybrid quartet, went the way of all things on Saturday.  So RIP, dear Gertie.  All good things come to an end…  There’s always been a white hen in my hen-house.  I feel rather bereft.

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Not Long Now – final preparations for Christmas – Blog Advent (22)

So, somehow it’s got to be the final weekend before Christmas, and it feels like only a few days ago that we hung out the fabric advent calendar, and I started on my mad-cap plan to blog every day in Advent, as if there wasn’t enough to do in the run up to Christmas!

There’s always a lot to do in the final few days, and while today has been almost entirely occupied with preparations for the big day, there’s not an awful lot in there which is very blog-worthy, mostly for reason of avoiding spoilers for guests and gift recipients reading this blog.

christmas sourdough

The sourdough loaves for Christmas and Boxing Day are baked.  Sourdough has been one of my great discoveries this year – I really can’t figure out how I lived without great home-baked bread!  On Christmas Day, we’ll have it as a starter, with home-cured and smoked trout and goats’ cheese.  On Boxing Day, it will be part of the traditional day-after spread of cold ham, meats, pates, cheese, pies and pickles – and I think it’s going to stand up to that, really, very well!

We did our final shop for food and drinks today – it’s always a blasted nuisance, but fortunately we’ve planned ahead and sourced as much from local suppliers, farm shops, and home-made as we could, so it was less of a chore than it might have been.  Good to feel everything is under control, and we collect the goose from the local farm butcher’s tomorrow.

I spent quite a bit of time this afternoon sorting out, labelling, and wrapping the Christmas gift hampers that are a big part of my gift giving for close family and friends.  I know that some of them read this blog, so no details for now I’m afraid!  But here they are, all packed in recycled boxes (I’ve been saving, begging and borrowing Amazon boxes and suchlike from colleagues the last few weeks!), and the contain jams and preserves (which, if you’ve been paying attention over the last six months, you may have had a hint about!), hedgerow liqueurs, and some other home-made surprises which I’ve carefully not been writing about here!

Hampers almost ready to go

And we’re very close now, three sleeps ’till Christmas, and the Advent candle that started burning 22 days ago is now very nearly gone…

Advent - day 22

I’m trying to write a post a day during Advent, so, please come along with me while I try to Blog Advent – the Country Skills Way – and forgive me if I don’t quite manage it!

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Warm Fingers Never Felt So Good – mittens from washing machine felt – Blog Advent (10)

A couple of months ago, I shared a bit of a teaser with you about working with washing machine felt, with a simple technique for making a pair of five minute fingerless gloves.

These mittens are slightly more time consuming, but still really really simple and quick, an easy little hand sewing project to do in an evening in front of the TV.  Better still, they’d make a great personal gift!

Machine felt mittens

You’ll need the following –

  • A washing machine felted sweater.  See here for details on the (easy!) process.
  • Some scrap cardboard, a pencil and scissors for the mitten template.  A tailor’s chalk pencil is useful but not essential.
  • Some thick thread for assembling your gloves.  I used some multicoloured scrap knitting yarn in contrasting / coordinating colours.  Knitting yarn, incidentally, makes really really *rubbish* sewing thread, so see if you have something better – embroidery floss would be great, or how about some really thin (3mm) ribbon? Decorative and contrasting is good – I like the effect – but you could go for something to blend into your sweater felt if you prefer.
  • A really chunky hand sewing needle.  I used one intended for use on sacking fabric with a bit of a spade-end, which makes a nice big hole in the thick felt so that the double thickness of thread passes through more easily.

TemplateTo start creating your template, draw around your hand on the cardboard.  This is the time to decide how long you want the cuffs of your mittens.  Also, I suggest you have your fingers in a relaxed position slightly apart, not all cramped together – this should make the mittens more comfy later!

Next, I measured around the knuckles on my hand and compared the measurement to the appropriate part of the flat silhouette drawing on the card.  You’ll find the circumference is more than twice the silhouette measure – your hand has depth! – for me this was about an extra 2cm.  I don’t need a seam allowance for these mittens (more on this later) so I added about 5mm all the way around the hand silhouette.  Smooth the shape off at this stage to make it nice and pleasing.  [Those of you who have ever drawn a glove or mitten patten will spot my deliberate mistake here – if you haven’t, then I suggest you read the rest of the post *before* you go ahead and cut out your template!]

Mark up feltCut out your cardboard pattern, and using tailors chalk if you have it (or anything else that will draw on your felt, if you don’t) mark up four copies onto the felt.  Arrange the cuff end against the waistband of your felted jumper – this way, you get to cheat and use the waistband detail from the jumper for the cuff of your mittens.

Mitten halvesThe great thing about washing machine felt is that you’ve taken a knit fabric that would unravel, and solved this problem.  You can slice it up just as you like and it behaves very much like polar fleece (and actually, if you have some scrap polar fleece – or you’re allergic to wool – it would make a great substitute fabric for this project). Now cut out your four mitten shapes and assemble them in pairs.

I mentioned earlier that I wasn’t including a seam allowance in the template.  This is because the felt is really quite bulky fabric – great for nice warm toasty fingers in your mittens, but it would be really very cumbersome if you had it doubled – or more – at the seams. I’d guessed there must be edge-to-edge stitches, though I hadn’t used them before, and a bit of googling turned up a perfect solution for this project, which is called ‘Old German stitch’.

Old German stitchHopefully this image illustrates it usefully, but briefly, you assemble the two edges to each other, with the thread emerging on top of one edge, passing into the gap, and going into the other piece from below, emerging on top, passing back through the gap, and so on.  This produces an edge to edge seam without overlap which, because the thread crosses through the gap every time, is protected from the problem of the edges overriding which you’d likely get if you used a slip stitch.

Sewing around to thumb, with insert pieceNow, you can start to sew.  I started at the wristband on the little-finger side of the pattern, and worked around progressively until I reached the tip of the thumb.  I’ve mentioned that knitting yarn makes horrible sewing thread.  This particular yarn tended to shred itself, after a while, and had hideous knot-holding properties which made it really challenging to start, finish, and join.  Don’t say I haven’t warned you!

It’s at this point that my rookie pattern-cutting mistake becomes painfully obvious.  The mitten is the perfect size on the palm and fingers, but far far too narrow on the wrist.  A quick bit of wrist and mitten measuring confirmed that at the cuff, we were going to be about 5cm short.  The only solution – other than starting again with a new sweater! – was to add an insert piece – a triangle, 5cm across the short edge, and as tall as the distance from thumb-tip to cuff.  You can see this in the photo just above.

Three pieces, assembledIf you don’t want to make this as a three-piece pattern, then you should get this wrist circumference incorporated properly into your pattern template in the first place, adding an extra ~2.5cm to the cuff end below the thumb.  Actually, I really like the three part shape, though it was a complete accident.  I think it adds a nice detail, and gives proper ‘depth’ to the thumb construction.

Finished mittensYou’re done at this stage, if you want to be.  I decided I wasn’t bored of hand sewing yet, so I went on to add a row of blanket stitch along the cuff.

These are really great, warm, practical mitts. I’ve been wearing them loads over the past few weeks.  They’re not waterproof, but they’re warm and cozy and have stood up really well so far to plenty of use.

Better still, the world is your oyster in terms of colours (so go on, raid that pile of old sweaters in the back of your wardrobe!) and detailing.  You could even embroider the back of the hands, if you were feeling especially keen!

So, if you want to create a special, warming handmade gift this Christmas, you still have plenty of time to make these.  Go on, you know you want to!

Advent - day 10

I’m trying to write a post a day during Advent, so, please come along with me while I try to Blog Advent – the Country Skills Way – and forgive me if I don’t quite manage it!

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Felt Like This – washing machine felt, and five minute fingerless gloves

I have a confession to make – I can be a bit of a hoarder!  I’m at my worst when it comes to clothes, even when they’re worn out, damaged, or utterly unsuitable, not even good enough for the charity shop, I look at all the lovely fabric and can’t bring myself to throw them out. Instead, they end up pushed to the back of the cupboard, or in bags and piles for ‘doing something with’, one day.

Finished fingerless gloves

Browsing around the web a few months ago, I came across a reference to washing-machine felt, a technique for taking unwanted woollen knitwear and turning it into a wool felt which can then be used in other projects.  All the tutorials I found seemed to hinge on also having access to a tumble dryer (which I don’t), but I had a dig about in the back of the wardrobe, rounded up three dead jumpers (two of which had already suffered and shrunk a little in the wash) and decided to give it a go.  It’s important that the jumpers you’re felting are entirely – or almost entirely – made of natural woollen fibre, as polyester and other synthetics won’t felt properly.  Mine ranged from 80% to 100% wool.

The 'donor' jumpers, before feltingI threw them all in the washing machine with a scoop of normal detergent, and selected a 60 degree cotton wash with all the ‘extras’ selected – extra dirty, extra spin, you know the sort of things.  Kids, this is not a good or friendly thing to do to knitwear (do kids these days even wear woollens??).  The jumpers came out of the machine half the size they went in, and undeniably now made of felt.  Success – and no dryer required!  After a couple of days drying, I was ready to have a play.

The fabric you’ve made will now behave very much like manufactured felt (though it’s a bit thicker than the stuff you buy by the square foot at the craft shop – and rather more robust) or polar fleece. You can cut it without it unravelling, and the edges don’t need finishing.

Cut lengths from sleeves

For a really quick satisfying up-cycle from your first washing machine felt sweater, how about a pair of fingerless felt gloves?

Work out how long you want your gloves, and cut the appropriate length from the sleeves of the felted jumper.

Offer up for thumb position

You’ll probably want the cuffs of the sleeves to be the cuffs of the new gloves.

Snip thumb holesNow decide where you want your thumb holes, turn the sleeves inside out, and snip out that part of the seam from the inside of the sleeve, leaving a slit of the right length to fit your thumb through.  Err on the small size, you can always cut more later.

Completed fingerless gloveThat’s it, if you want it to be!  Not even five minutes work.

But you can embellish these gloves really easily, if you like.  The sky’s the limit, really, for embroidery and embellishment, but I decided simply to add some blanket stitch to the unfinished edges and thumb holes, using some pretty multicoloured contrasting knitting wool I had lying around.  Blanket stitching the cut edges, like I did, has the added bonus that it should stop the seam coming undone as time goes by.

Quickest, simplest fabric recycling project ever, isn’t it?  Anyone can do this, so give it a go!

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Using Your Bottle – self-watering planter success!

Earlier in the week I wrote about my last batch of bottle cutting experiments.  Just a quick post to update, especially about the self-watering planter which, I had to admit, I had my doubts about!

Self-watering planter

Well, it works!  The compost is staying moist, the water level in the reservoir is very slowly – but visibly – dropping, and the basil seems to be thriving!  There seems to be an added bonus with this design, which is that the glass captures the heat from sunshine much more effectively than traditional pots.  The soil feels quite warm to the touch on a sunny day, which can only do good things for the plants’ growth over the winter, right?

So, many more of these to come, I think!  Hubby not too sure about me filling up our windowsills with recycled wine bottles, but I’m sure he’ll come around!

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Using Your Bottle – testing some ideas for bottle cutting crafts

I’ve been wanting to play some more with the bottle cutting jig since my first attempts at bottle cutting a few weeks ago.  This weekend I found a few hours and raided some bottles from the neighbours’ recycling bins, and got to work.

Almost completed bottle cutting projects

My success rate this time stayed stubbornly around the 1:3 mark.  It’s becoming clear that two things are combining to be a problem.  The first is that accuracy in the score mark is absolutely critical – if you don’t get a perfectly straight even score that meets neatly, there’s no chance of the bottle breaking cleanly.  The second is that bottles are *rubbish*.  Of the bottles I’ve cut – and failed to cut – so far, not one is made up of even thickness glass, and most of them aren’t even anywhere near round in section!  This makes getting an even score more challenging, as well as tending to make the bottle break unevenly as a result of the variable thickness of glass.   There are a handful of gadgets on the market (and one interesting looking one, called the Kinkajou, about to come on the market) which might well improve my hit rate on nice reliable score lines, but I’m still trying to keep this a low-cost hobby for now!

Glass cutting jigStill, a couple of hours work (mostly removing labels!) got me three new nicely cut bottles – a 500ml green cider bottle, and two punt-bottled wine bottles, one of which I cut long, and discarded the top to make a vase, and the other cut more centrally to give a top and bottom section.  Sanding down (see my previous post for more details of the cutting process) gave me safe cut edges.

I’ve really wanted to play with etching, because I’ve seen some beautiful glass decorating projects, but hubby really wasn’t very enamoured with the idea of me using concentrated acid paste in the kitchen (and I can kind of see his point!).  I settled on using some frosted-glass effect spray paint made by plastikote.  This slightly offends one of my fundamental design principles, actually, but never mind!

The ideas for using the bottles were mostly gleaned from Pinterest, which is a new and rather addictive time-sink (those of you who’ve also discovered this can have a browse of my boards here).  I used some black sticky-back vinyl as a masking material for two of the pieces.

Masked-off bottle topIsn’t it great when you discover that the bits and bobs you’ve bought for one craft can be pressed into service for another?  I dug out the rotary cutter, ruler and cutting mat I bought for quilting, and got to work cutting strips of vinyl.  Two to wrap around the bottom of the cider bottle, to give a striped finish, and the off-cut with some newspaper to mask off all but the edge of the cut-off top of the wine bottle.

Masked tealight holderThis vinyl is a great masking material for glass, as it adheres tightly, stretches just a little to account for the wonkiness of the bottles, and comes away cleanly without leaving any residue.  The resulting cider bottle makes a very pretty tealight holder which would make a lovely little gift.

Masked vase with rubber bandsFor the bottle destined to be a vase, I borrowed another idea in wide circulation on pinterest and applied rubber bands, some overlapping, rising and falling. The first thing to note about this approach is that the rubber bands don’t arrange themselves  – it actually takes quite a lot of faffing to get a pleasing arrangement of lines.  They’re not an ideal masking material, either.  As you apply the instructed two or three layers of the frosting paint, some will settle on the top edge of the rubber bands (this is much less of a problem with vinyl which is very thin and doesn’t collect ‘overspray’ in this way).

Dave with vaseThe rubber bands came off easily once the paint had dried overnight, but it took quite a lot of delicate trimming away of the extra paint with a scalpel blade to get a reasonable finish.  I’m still not entirely happy with the outcome, and if I try this approach again I’ll try to get away with one, perhaps two layers of paint rather than the three I used.  Still, the result is quite pretty, isn’t it?  Dave said he wanted to be in the photo, and who am I to disappoint him?

Landscape fabric with stringFinally, and perhaps most interesting for me, is the bottle cut in half.  I’ve made a self-watering herb planter, based on a photo I saw – guess where? – that’s right, pinterest again.  The top of the bottle is up-ended inside the bottom.  I lined it with a cut rectangle of landscape fabric about 4″ by 8″, one half of which I threaded through with a bunch of jute string. Fold this in half with the string dangling through the neck of the bottle. Then, fill with compost and plant (in my case, with some rather sorry-looking home-grown basil I always forget to water).

This is where I admit to being a really neglectful gardner.  I’m full of enthusiasm, but when it comes down to it I have a nasty habit of forgetting to water, to pot on, to plant out…  my garden thrives on it’s own resources more than on my care, and my houseplants have to have a strong will to survive!

Self-watering wine bottle planter

So if this contraption actually works (and the jury is still out on this – it’s early days) then it’s going to change my window-sill gardening forever.  Herbs that will water themselves!  In a planter which is recycled, free, and really pretty, rather than something ugly and plastic and more suited to greenhouse shelving than living room windows.

I’ll update with more photos of the herb planter once it’s clear whether there’s any merit to the design.  In the meantime I suspect there’s quite a bit more mileage in breaking bottles for fun and (perhaps??) profit…

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Bottling It – a first ‘crack’ at recycled glass craft

Some time ago, I came across a blog claiming that you could cut wine bottles with a burning bit of string soaked in acetone.  This sounded hilarious fun, but also a tad more dangerous and unpredictable than I was entirely happy with!  The idea didn’t desert me, though, and as time went by I was thinking of more and more different ways I might use recycled wine bottles, if only I could neatly (and safely!) cut them in half.  Green Glass make some beautiful drinking glasses out of recycled bottles, which were another source of inspiration.  This is a real ‘upcycling’ craft (a word which often seems to be an excuse for selling overpriced old junk on etsy!) creating something pretty and useful out of the contents of your recycling box!

Glass craft - candle holder

So I did what we all do, and broke out a bit of depth-first google searching.  A few idle lunch-breaks worth of reading later, and I eventually decided that I was happy to experiment with a cutting process where hot and cold water are used to ‘crack’ a line scored on the outside of the bottle with a diamond-tip glass cutting tool.

DIY cutting jigOf course, the knack is getting the score line straight.  People will sell you various bottle cutting jigs and devices that work on this principle, but I didn’t want to buy any expensive kit for this, at least to start with.

Jig with cutting toolA bit of thought and collaboration from my lovely husband, and we built this contraption out of leftover wood from the shed.  It’s a v-shaped cradle to hold the bottle with a solid end, and notches cut in the side to stabilise the handle of the cutting tool.  The cutting tool itself came from amazon and cost a couple of pounds.

Give some thought to what you want from your bottle, and whether the traditional bump found in the bottom of most bottles (called a ‘punt’, apparently – here I was thinking a punt was a flat bottomed boat propelled with a pole on shallow rivers in British university cities) is a use or a hindrance.  It might be fine if you want to make a vase, for instance, but not so useful if you want a candle-holder.  Some bottles are tapered or squared-off, and these you probably also want to avoid!  Now, give your bottle a good scrub and remove all the labels. You should to do this first, before there are any sharp edges to work around!

Scoring the bottlePut your bottle in the jig, place the glass cutting tool in an appropriate slot and gently press the scoring head against the side of the bottle.  Now, very slowly, rotate the bottle against the point of the cutting tool.  You’re aiming to complete a perfect full rotation, without leaving a gap or ‘over-writing’ the start of your line at the end.  If the score line isn’t complete and perfectly straight, the bottle isn’t going to crack evenly.

Accuracy is everything, as it’s a one-shot deal and mistakes cannot be corrected later – but on the plus side, the bottles are free and only destined for the recycling bin in any case, so try not to fret about it too much!  My success rate so far for a clean break is about 1 in 3 – not great but it’s early days and I suspect practice will help improve this somewhat.

Once you’ve scored your line, it’s time to get it to crack.  Different approaches are advocated, but I went for the simplest one.  Boil a kettle of water.  Holding the bottle over the sink, pour freshly boiled water gently over the score line, rotating the bottle slowly.  After a few seconds, put the bottle under the cold running tap and repeat the process of rotating it.  I haven’t got any photos of this bit, because both my hands were a bit occupied at the time!

Uneven breakYou’ll have to do this a few times, but you’ll see – and perhaps hear – the score lines start to give way.  If you’re really lucky, the bottle will break cleanly straight along the score line.  This one didn’t!  The fracture line wavered quite dramatically above and below the score line over about 1/3rd of the circumference.  I’m not sure why, whether it was to do with the score line, or the fact the bottle itself which was quite uneven in thickness.  Whichever it was, it’s a dead loss, so throw it away and fetch another one from the recycling bin.

Other approaches I’ve seen advocated include candle flame followed by ice cube, and tapping the bottle from the inside near the score line, though this requires a crank-headed tapping tool. I have no idea if these approaches might result in a better success rate – certainly tapping may give a different, more controlled break than hot/cold shock.

Fortunately, my first try (when I wasn’t taking photographs – typical eh?) did break cleanly, giving me a goblet about four inches high which I wanted for a candle holder.  It broke with a very slight ‘notch’, which I was able to crack off using the glass cutting tool to give essentially a clean cut.  A very *sharp* clean cut.

Sandpaper to grind the edgesSuccess!  But that’s not it, of course, since you’d have a candle holder specifically designed to maim the unwary, which is a silly enough thing to keep around your own house, never mind consider giving as a gift.  Those sharp sheared glass edges are going to have to go.  My approach is low tech – wet, fine grade silicon carbide sandpaper.  I used a slightly coarser grade to take the edges down initially, and then finished with some really fine paper.

Working wet greatly reduces the production of glass dust, which is nasty dangerous stuff that you should not be inhaling.  Work in a well ventilated area (outside, for me!) and ideally wear a dust mask.  Feel the edge *very* gently and tentatively with a fingertip to check the sharp edges are gone to your satisfaction.

Carefully work on the edges as well as the flat cut surface.  A little piece of sand paper wrapped around a pencil or something similar is good for the inside edge without scratching the glass.  I’ve seen the use of a dremel advocated – I can see how that would work really well but you’d want to be really careful about dust, probably dipping the grinding head in water every few seconds to keep it wet.  You’ll want to do much more careful and comprehensive smoothing work on the rim if you want to use your cut bottle as a drinking glass – but your extra efforts may well be worth it!

Finished candle holderThe result is really pleasing, the cut edge after sanding has a mostly-frosted appearance but still shows some evidence of the manner of its birth.   It’s not a perfect, machined straight line, but just has that little bit of hand-crafted variability.  You could etch the glass now (something I’m looking into!) or paint it if you liked, but you’re the proud owner of a hand-made recycled glass candle holder.

I used this with a tea light for a test burn, as much as anything to check that the heating from a candle wasn’t going to cause  unexpected cracking or breakage after the bottle’s relatively rough treatment!  And to get photographs, of course.  I expect this will look even better with a votive candle, but I didn’t have one to hand.

Finished candle holder

This was just a first attempt – but I had a lot of fun and will certainly be doing some more bottle cutting in time for Christmas!  I love that the detail of the bottle is still very much part of the finished piece too.  Definitely something to try – though probably a craft for grown-ups!

For a few ideas, try my next post on bottle cutting – ‘Using Your Bottle – testing some ideas for bottle cutting crafts’.

Finally, an apology to those of you who were emailed a part-finished version of this blog post yesterday – a mistake on my part, I’m afraid!  I’ll try to restrain my itchy mouse-finger from wandering over the ‘Publish’ button so enthusiastically!

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From the Bookshelf – foragers’ field guides

It felt like autumn was in the air this morning. Harvest is well under way (and didn’t I know it at gone bedtime last night, with the combine still beavering away under floodlights in the field next door!) and Keats’ ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ is just around the corner. Autumn is a gift to foragers (human and animal alike!) and at this time of year, whoever you are, and whether you live in the town or the country, there is a bounty of marvellous free food just waiting to be gathered up, and the traditional British hedgerow is definitely the place to be going looking for it!

There are the wild fruit nearly everyone knows, of course – most of us would recognise a bramble (wild blackberry), a crab apple or a rose hip. But there are rarer (or at least, less well recognised) autumn fruit that are just as worthy of attention. Can you confidently recognise elderberries and rowans? What about telling the difference between damsons, sloes and bullaces? Are wild raspberries or hops growing in your local hedges? Did you spot the distinctive spring showing of your local cob nut trees, and the blossom of the blackthorn, and manage to commit them to memory? If you’re relatively new to foraging, or even if you’ve been doing it all your life and think you know the offerings of your local hedgerows, verges, and field margins (and don’t dismiss roundabouts!) intimately, a good field guide is essential to getting the most out of your local foraging opportunities.

[Full disclosure: ‘The Hedgerow Handbook’ came to me free of charge as a review copy from Random House. I bought ‘River Cottage Handbook No.7 – Hedgerow’ with my own money, a couple of years ago.  I do not have an amazon affiliate account, any links provided are for interest and convenience, and I don’t profit from them in any way!]

The Hedgerow Handbook, by Adele Nozedar‘The Hedgerow Handbook’, by Adele Nozedar, (illustrations by Lizzie Harper).
Square Peg / Random House, 2012.
ISBN 978-0-224-08671-4. RRP £12.99.
See this book at amazon.co.uk

The first thing you notice is what a beautiful little book this is, graced inside and out with the loveliest hand-drawn botanical illustrations.  It’s a pretty little hardback, nicely printed on quality paper, and has great ‘object’ qualities, to be handled, flicked through, and admired – all of the things that make physical books so special compared to their digital cousins.

The illustrations are a huge strength of this particular guide – hand-illustrations are always better than photographs for identification, as they allow all the relevant details and characteristics of a plant – and different stages of its life cycle, such as buds and leaves, flowers and fruit – to be shown together, when this would be impractical in a single photo. Illustrations also tend to be clearer, and generalise the appearance of a species rather than showing a particular ‘individual’ growing in a particular place at a particular time.

Inside page viewArranged alphabetically, each hedgerow plant in the book is fully illustrated, the illustration accompanied by a useful description of its habit (and habitat). Culinary and traditional medicinal uses are then briefly discussed, along with curiosities and anecdotes, and folklore associated with the plant – after which Adele shares one or more recipes.

There are some really exciting and unusual recipes here that I can’t wait to try, at an appropriate opportunity – it’s not just the usual suspects like blackberry jam and elderflower champagne.  The idea of pickled ash keys is intriguing, and I’ll definitely be looking out for these when they’re young and tender again next spring. There are plants in this book that I would never have thought were edible – for instance, I’d somewhere along the line picked up the conviction that ox-eye daisies were poisonous, it turns out the buds can be pickled, and the young flowers deep fried in tempura batter.

As a gardener, I’m delighted to to discover that in addition to nettles, other pernicious weeds like cleavers and ground elder can also offer up, if not a square meal, then at least a free green vegetable dish!

Of course, knowing you can eat cleavers in theory is all very well – it’s essential I think that a sensible suggestion is also made as to what you might like to do with them, and this, along with the really wide range of species included, is a real strength of this book.  Recipe suggestions include preserves, cordials, and country wines, as well as savoury dishes and deserts, and make a really interesting and inspiring collection.

If I had to make any criticism at all of this little book, it would be that I’m not quite sure alphabetical order is the most obvious organisation for a field guide – arrangement by season or habit / habitat feel more natural. A note of possible confusion species, and how to avoid making these mistakes, is often a feature of guides like this, and is missing here – though the quality of the illustrations and annotations make going astray quite unlikely.  Finally, for me, the author’s enthusiasm for herbal medicine was sometimes a bit distracting – but I must confess to liking my medicine firmly evidence-based!

All in all this is a great practical little book that should be on your shelf if you enjoy a spot of hedgerow foraging – and you needn’t be in the country to find it useful!  Being such a pretty little book, I think it would also make a really lovely gift!

River Cottage Handbook No.7 - Hedgerow‘River Cottage Handbook No.7 – Hedgerow’, by John Wright.
Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd, 2010.
ISBN 978-1-4088-0185-7.  RRP £14.99.
See this book on amazon.co.uk

Another pretty little hardback without a slip-cover, this one is bright and full of photographs.  With the commentary on illustrations above in mind, this isn’t ideal – but considering that, they’re good photographs and ‘do the job’!

This book starts with a good comprehensive section on the generalities of foraging before moving on to identification of about 70 edible species.  After this, some of the potentially poisonous species are also identified – useful!  The back section of the book is set aside for recipes.

The front section of this book is especially useful, covering the legal aspects of taking plants and flowers from the wild in the UK, as well as a great tabular guide to the growing and harvesting seasons of the various species.  The set of edible species listed overlaps quite considerably, though not completely, with those in ‘The Hedgerow Handbook’ – as you would expect from two books covering the same ground.

Inside page viewFor each plant, one or more photographs are provided, along with a useful summary covering description, habitat, season and distribution.  Combined with the introductory section, this makes it a really useful practical field guide.

It’s reassuring – and really interesting, actually! – to be able to confidently identify the toxic hedgerow species, and the third section covers these – the hemlocks, nightshades, foxgloves and suchlike.

The recipes, when we finally get to them, are much sparser on the ground, and do contain some ‘usual suspects’ like elderflower cordial, but are generally of nice quality, and well fleshed-out and illustrated.

As a whole the book does sit very well among the others in the ‘River Cottage Handbook’ series (which I have to confess to having acquired, um, all of so far), and avoids duplication.  This does mean that other recipes for foraged foods turn up in other handbooks, particularly the Pam Corbin ‘Preserves’ book.  Mushrooms and costal foraging also have their own volumes, which are very similarly presented and also very competent, interesting little books.  I would definitely recommend this volume, but be aware it’s likely to act as a ‘gateway’ purchase to the rest of the series!

Both of these are cracking little books which I can thoroughly recommend to you. Whichever you choose (hell, get both, you know you want to!) I hope you find them really useful for your autumn foraging efforts, and for many years to come!

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Getting In A Pickle – gorgeous spiced plum chutney

Accidents in the kitchen always seem to happen when everything’s just at that critical point… and any cook worth their salt, when scalded by a volcanic eruption of boiling sugar and vinegar, is likely to think ‘never mind my arm, have to save the chutney!’

So it was Thursday evening.  The chutney is fine, incidentally, thank you for asking!

Red plumsAs well as bringing some beautiful French apricots back from their holidays, my lovely in-laws also arrived with a couple of kilos of fabulous red plums.  This put me in a real quandary, let me tell you.  Plum jam is one of my favourite things in the whole world.  But then this spiced plum chutney (originally Delia’s, credit where credit’s due!) is my very very favourite chutney.  It has a lovely fruity character topped with just a subtle hint of Christmas spices, and is wonderful with a lovely sharp mature cheddar, or a slice of home-cooked ham.

What eventually made my mind up was my jam jar situation.  I’ve done a lot of preserving in the last few weeks – it is that time of year after all! – and the jars I have left are a motley bunch.  Quite a lot of them have held things like sauces, curry pastes, and even pickles and chutneys.  The sorts of aromas that ‘hang around’ jars and lids, despite your best cleaning and sterilisation efforts.  It’s not really the flavour sensation you want with your breakfast jam!

This chutney is full of big flavours, and will swamp any faint ‘eau de korma’ residue it might have to deal with!

My well thumbed 'bible'The recipe is somewhat modified from the one in my very well thumbed copy of the Delia Smith ‘Complete Cookery Course’, reprinted from the 1982 edition.  Conveniently, it’s also available at ‘Delia Online’, here.  I’m not going to duplicate the recipe, since it’s freely available for you to read, but I changed the quantities and slightly modified some of the ingredients to suit my 2kg batch of plums, and what I had in the cupboard.

This is a BIG batch of chutney, producing 9 jars about 1lb in size, and a further eight small kilner-type jars, plus a bit extra which wasn’t quite a full pound jar.  I estimate in total it makes about 12lb, or 6kg.  It needs a very big pan – my large stock pot was over half filled, before reducing, and has a capacity of about 15l.  Unless you’re planning on eating an awful lot of chutney, giving lots of it away, or selling it (I think it would go really well at a farmer’s market!) I’d probably suggest scaling these quantities down to half or even a third (Delia’s original quantities are for 1.3kg of plums, which is still a very big batch).

I used the following –

  • 2kg of dark red / purple plums.  The tart / acid ‘cooking’ sort are probably better than sweet eating plums for this recipe.
  • Four smallish Bramley apples, totalling about 800g in weight.
  • 5 large-ish onions
  • 5 cloves of garlic
  • 3 teaspoons of ground ginger
  • 750g of seedless raisins
  • 750g each of soft brown and demerera sugar
  • 3 pints of malt vinegar (excuse the switch to imperial measures – this is about 1.7 litres, malt vinegar comes in pint-bottles in these parts, so it’s a measure of convenience).
  • 3 desert spoons of salt
  • a large cinnamon stick, 15g of whole allspice berries, and 20g of mixed peppercorns (the mix was about 1/3rd allspice berries, oddly), and a tablespoon of whole cloves, all tied up in a muslin parcel.
  • A giant stock-pot, food processor, and enough jam jars to contain your chutney (lots, and lots, of jam jars!), which should have plastic-lined lids to help resist the vinegar.

Whole spices with muslin

First wash, then stone and quarter all your plums. I find the quickest way to do this is to first slice along the line of the plum, down the visible ‘seam’, and divide the plum in two. The stone will cling to one of the halves, and especially with the smaller firm-textured cooking plums, won’t want to come out easily.

Stoning plums - 1   Stoning plums - 2   Stoning plums - 3

Take this half, and slice in half again, across the sort axis of the stone this time. The stone will now be sticking conveniently out of one of your quarters, and can easily be pushed free.  Cut your other half into quarters, too, and you’re done.  Incidentally, stoning plums can stain your fingers and fingernails a rather attractive nicotine brown colour, I think as a result of the tannins, so if you care about this, consider wearing gloves!

Chopped apple in food processorThe recipe calls for minced onion and apple.  I put mine through my food processor in batches, but left some nice texture in both.  The first time I made this recipe I didn’t have a decent food processor and diced all the apples and onions very finely by hand.  It works, but I can’t say I can recommend it!

Mixed ingredients in panAfter your fresh ingredient preparation, it’s very simple really.   Add all the other fresh, dry, and liquid ingredients, and toss in your spice bundle (Delia recommends tying your bundle of spices to the pan handle, but I really can’t see any benefit to this!).  Bring everything to a simmer, stirring to mix as it all comes up to temperature.  Your kitchen will smell rather like Christmas-gone-wrong about now – festive spices mixed inexplicably with onion and vinegar.

Cooking away nicelyThen let it bubble, stirring occasionally, for about three hours (my mixture was about six inches deep in my very big stock pot – a wider pan, or a smaller batch, which would allow the mix to sit in a shallower layer will reduce noticeably faster) until the mixture is reduced, glutinous, and the vinegar mixture has thickened so that it doesn’t immediately flow back into a channel cleared with a spoon.  I had to ladle out a couple of spoon-fulls into a bowl to check this.

As it starts to reach this stage, it will tend to ‘glob’ with really big bubbles, particularly when stirred, so learn from my experience and take care to protect your hands and arms from scalding!  This is the point that it’s at risk of sticking and burning, too, so keep stirring when you think you’re getting close.  Once it’s ready, fish out the spice bag, and bottle straight away into your hot sterilised jars.

Bottled chutney

It will be at it’s best if you allow it to mature for at least three months before eating – just in time for Christmas, then! – though I had some of the ‘extra’ today with some bread and cheese, and it’s already very good!  It will keep very well, too – I’ve eaten this chutney after at least four years’ storage.

Now, I wonder if I can get hold of some more plums to make some jam, too …

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This Is My Jam – French apricot with kirsch

We had a visit from my in-laws this week, on their way back from holidaying in France.  It’s always lovely to see them, but this time was particularly special – they brought with them 2kg each of beautiful French apricots and plums.  So today, my day off, was always going to be about preserving!

I wanted to make some really nice authentic French apricot jam, so this is as simple as it comes – apricots, sugar, a squeeze of lemon juice… and just a little ‘twist’!

For this jam, you will require –Fresh French apricots

  • 2kg of French apricots (well, OK, anyone’s apricots will do, I suppose!) not too ripe.
  • 2kg of golden caster sugar (as a general rule, I prefer to use the least-refined sugar that I can get away with in any given situation)
  • 3 slightly sorry-looking lemons from the fruit bowl (the sorry state is not compulsory, and two nice big fresh juicy lemons will do well here!)
  • Half a pint of water
  • A couple of tablespoon measures of kirsch (or other eau-de-vie of your preference)
  • Generous sized preserving pan, not aluminium
  • Enough jam jars to contain your batch.  I always wash and sterilise more than I think I’ll need, as it doesn’t do to run out at bottling time!

IngredientsObviously you can scale the quantities to suit your apricot supply – they’re very nice convenient multiples!  I find 2kg of fruit is a good useful batch size, easily manageable with the equipment I’ve got, and makes enough jam to generously repay the investment in time and effort.

Apricot halvesWash your apricots, then halve them and remove the stones.  Don’t throw the stones away just yet!  Put all your half apricots into your pan, and add the half pint of water, and bring this to a gentle simmer.  Stew the apricots very gently until they’re just soft, and the juice has run.

Apricot kernelsWhile your apricots are stewing, take your nutcracker (if you have one) and gently crack about a dozen of the reserved apricot stones.  Inside you’ll find the kernels – they look like little almonds, and this is no coincidence, as almonds and apricots are closely related, so closely in fact that you shouldn’t grow apricot and almond trees nearby one another!  You can add these to the jars of jam at bottling time (about one per jar), which will infuse a lovely subtle bitter-almond flavour into your jam – this is completely optional, of course, if you can’t be bothered with the faff (or can’t lay your hands on a nutcracker!).

Gently stewed apricotsPut your clean jam jars and lids into a cold oven and set it to 150C.  Now add the sugar and heat gently until it’s all dissolved – you might find adding it in portions is easier and results in less trauma to the apricot pieces.

At a rolling boilNow turn up the heat and boil the jam until it reaches a set.  This didn’t seem to take very long at all for me (though I have to admit to being distracted by sorting and cleaning out the *next* batch of jars at this point) and the natural pectin in the apricots seemed to be adequate.

Cold saucerI tested the set using the cold-saucer technique (I often forget to freeze the saucer, so this is my usual approach – placing a saucer on top of a freezer block, the sort you’d use to keep a chill bag cool).  I’m not after a firm set for this jam so I was satisfied as soon as I got a bit of a wrinkle on top of the sample.   Once it looks like you’re getting there, juice the lemons and stir the juice into the jam.  Get the first batch of jars out of the oven ready to go.  Finally add the kirsch and stir in briskly.

Bubbles at bottling timeNow start bottling your jam immediately, using a large-aperture funnel if you have one.  If you’re doing this right, you’ll be able to see bubbles rising in your jam as it hits the hot glass of the jam jar.

In the jar with the apricot kernelsFill a small number of jars at a time (2 or 3), don’t forget to add a kernel or two to each jar before adding a wax disk (if you like).  Secure the lids down tightly, before getting the next few jars out of the oven.

I was pleased with the yield of this batch, five good big jars with about a half litre capacity, five little mini-kilner-alikes (it would have been six, but one developed an alarming crack during sterilising!), and a cruet-worth for my breakfast over the next few days.

Finished batch

It’s gorgeous jam, too, with the subtle note of the kirsch just evident against the lovely deep rich apricot.  The balance of sweet and acid is very pleasing.  The set seems to have come out as I wanted – not a firm set, but not runny either, just like a traditional French apricot jam should be!

Now all I want is a crusty baguette, some unsalted butter, and an excuse to really tuck in!

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