Unprocessed Lent – a food challenge

I’ve been thinking for some time about giving up processed foods – at least as an experiment. The time has never seemed right, but with Spring on the way, and Lent around the corner, it seemed a very Lenten sort of exercise in food discipline.

Hang on, what do you mean by processed food?

When I’ve discussed this idea with friends in the past, one question arises, sooner or later. ‘What do you consider to be processed? I mean, all cooked food is processed. Even flour is processed!’ And this is a very fair question. Everything apart from raw fruit, vegetables, meat and fish has been processed to some extent – arguably, even those have, unless you start with a live chicken or dig the potato from the ground yourself.

unprocessed-lent_7What I’ve tried to do is construct a logical ‘traffic light’ system that categorises foods purely by their degree of processing. I’m not making any moral judgement here, or asserting that one category of foods is healthier, better, or more environmentally sound than any other. This isn’t by any means a ‘clean eating’ thing (I think that’s a rather pernicious fad, and well past it’s sell-by date). It’s purely a list of categories sorted by – if you’ll forgive the expression – increasing ‘buggered-aboutness’.

There are definitely other criteria that we might want to be considering, as thoughtful, ethical consumers, and I refer to some of these in the annotations to the categories. They will colour the degree to which I’m inclined to be militant about the degree of processing. For instance, freezing, drying, and canning foods – all undoubtedly forms of processing – significantly increase the shelf life and preserve the nutritional value of foods, reduce food waste, and allow us access to fresh produce all year around without needing it to be flown half way around the globe. I would rather eat frozen peas or tinned tomatoes in February than fresh ones flown in from Kenya or produced in an artificially lit and heated glasshouse somewhere.

I’m not making an argument here that additives / preservatives / flavourings and so on are necessarily and axiomatically bad (though many undoubtedly are) – just that they are more likely to disappear invisibly into certain sorts of food than others, along with trans fats, invert sugar syrups, and artificial sweeteners, and I like to know what’s on my plate. For me, the most worrying thing about the 21st century food chain is that it introduces black boxes, and unknowns, into what we’re eating. When food is a commodity, we lose touch with our food and our farmers. As a planet, we have never been more divorced and isolated from the origins of our food. Making a point of starting from simple ingredients, and shopping, cooking, and eating thoughtfully, is a great place to start in reconnecting ourselves to the food on our plates.

Embarking on this challenge at this time of year means that I can’t cheat by drawing heavily on my veggie garden – we’re fully in the ‘hungry gap’ and there’s pretty much nothing growing just now. Where I will be benefiting from our usual lifestyle is that I have a good stock of home-made preserves – pickles, jams, chutneys and so on – which, assuming they were made from simple ingredients, I consider absolutely fair game.

unprocessed-lent_6

Why are you doing this?

As thoughtful consumers, there are plenty of important questions we might want to ask about the food we eat –

  • Where was it grown, and how was it stored and transported?
  • What resources – water, soil etc – and other inputs such as fuel, insecticides and herbicides were used in its production?
  • What are the consequences of that for the local and global environment?
  • Who produced it, and were those farmers able to work safely and be paid fairly?
  • Is it good for us, or will eating it have negative consequences for us as consumers?
  • Is it good value for money?

Different people will have different priorities. But whatever is important to you when it come to food, we are deluding ourselves if we think we can start to answer any of these important questions without first being able to answer a much more basic one. And that question is –

 “WHAT AM I EATING?”

When we eat processed and highly manufactured foods, we cannot possibly answer this question. And without that answer, any attempt to answer any of the others is meaningless. Stripping out processed foods from our diets is the first, essential step towards being able to make good decisions about food. If we don’t know what’s in the food on our plates, we can’t possibly make good choices about it – whatever ‘good’ means for us, at any given time in our lives.

It’s not Lent until the 1st of March, so why the preview? 

Well, I’m asking you to argue with me, I guess. Point out important food groups that I’ve missed, or places where you think my categories are not working or where I’ve introduced false-equivalences. I think it’s very unlikely that I’ve got this right first off. So, folks, what have I forgotten or got wrong?


Unprocessed Lent – food categories


Green
 – Fresh foods
unprocessed-lent_4Permitted – first choice if home-grown or locally produced and in season, otherwise substitution with yellow or amber items may be preferred.

  • Fresh whole fruit & vegetables
  • Fresh whole identifiable pieces of meat or fish
  • Fresh egg
  • Honey

Yellow – Single-ingredient foods simply processed for preservation purposes
Permitted – in my view these are no ‘worse’ and in some respects more desirable than fresh – they make foods available out of season without causing dramatic food miles, without significant deterioration in food value, and reduce food waste.

  • Frozen meat, fish and vegetables (otherwise as above)
  • Pasteurised whole milk
  • Whole grains (brown rice, pearl barley etc)
  • Un-roasted seeds and nuts
  • Dried pulses (peas, beans, lentils etc)
  • Cold-pressed (extra virgin) vegetable oils

Amber – these are still primarily single-ingredient foods, but have been processed more heavily.
Permitted – these foods may be starting to lose some food value compared to their fresh or unprocessed equivalents, or have had small additions of other ingredients. In exchange, they often store better than fresh, reducing food miles and food waste. I can’t see how we can do without them and there’s nothing here that would have bothered my grandmother.

  • unprocessed-lent_9Tinned vegetables in their own juice (eg tomatoes)
  • Dried fruit & vegetables
  • Roasted nuts and seeds
  • Lightly processed whole grains – white rice, rolled oats etc
  • Wholemeal flours
  • Fruit juices (fresh or pasteurised, but preservative free)
  • Skimmed & semi-skimmed milk (pasteurised)
  • Cream
  • Unsalted butter
  • Animal fats (lard, suet)
  • Natural unsweetened yoghurt
  • Maple syrup
  • Coffee beans roasted (& ground)
  • Loose-leaf tea
  • Unsweetened cocoa powder
  • Dried herbs and spices
  • Sea salt

unprocessed-lent_5Amber+ – similar to amber but more processed
Substitute – where possible

  • White flour
  • Refined sugars
  • Minced meats

Orange – foods created by traditional preservation techniques such as fermentation, curing and smoking. These are foods with amazing, complex flavours; the very stuff human food culture is made of.
With Care – source is everything here, so buy carefully, from small – ideally local – makers using traditional techniques (actual smoke, rather than liquid, for example), look for PDO products, consider alternatives & home-made. The industrially manufactured versions of these foods fall into the ‘black’ group.

  • unprocessed-lent_8Cheese
  • Cured and/or naturally smoked meats & fish (anchovies, bacon, smoked haddock)
  • Real ale & cider
  • Wine
  • Natural wine and cider vinegars
  • Lacto-fermented foods (kimchi, sauerkraut)

Red – multi-ingredient manufactured foods. These are foods that our grandparents would have recognised, and may have bought from outside the home (at least some of the time). They can often be a source of hidden ingredients (salts, sugars, fats & additives)
Avoid – unless home-made

  • Bread & bakery products
  • Fresh & dried pasta and noodles
  • Prepared ‘deli-style’ meats ready to eat
  • Sausages, burgers
  • Jams, pickles, chutneys
  • Tinned fruit and vegetables in brine or syrup
  • Tinned fish
  • Squashes, cordials, and flavoured syrups
  • Manufactured condiments (mustard, ketchup, sweet chilli sauce, mayonnaise etc)
  • Tea bags

Black – convenience, industrially manufactured foods. Our grandparents would have been mystified by many of these, or, while recognising them, would never have thought to buy them ‘off the shelf’. These sorts of foods are where all the hidden sugars, salts, and oils (not to mention invert sugar syrups, trans fats, artificial sweeteners, preservatives, flavour enhancers, and so on) sneak into our diets. Obviously, all of these foods made at home from lower category ingredients are fine!
Off-limits

  • unprocessed-lent_3Any ‘orange’ food produced industrially
  • Ready meals (including prepared sandwiches)
  • Convenience fruit & veg (bag salad, peeled / chopped fruit & veg)
  • Prepared pizza
  • ‘Chorleywood process’ bread
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Prepared sauces (pasta, curry etc) and raw foods coated in them
  • Tinned prepared foods (baked beans, pasta in sauce etc)
  • UHT or homogenised milks
  • Solvent-extracted vegetable oils
  • Margarine and similar non-dairy spreads
  • Non-dairy creamer
  • Sugar-free sweetners
  • unprocessed-lent_1Fruit juices containing preservatives
  • Prepared soups (fresh & tinned)
  • Instant noodles & soups
  • Sweet & savoury pies, scotch eggs
  • Crisps, biscuits, prepared snack foods
  • Sweets, chocolates, etc
  • Carbonated drinks
  • Spirits
  • Instant coffee
  • ‘Coffee pod’ coffee (Nespresso, Tassimo)
  • Stock cubes & gravy granules
  • Packet sauces & seasoning mixes
  • Take-aways

 

‘Tricky’ foods – additives and additions traditionally used in kitchens, and manufactured condiments in small quantities.

Additives / additions – our grandparents would have been familiar with all of these, even though, as kitchen ingredients, some have fallen out of common use. I plan to continue to use them when appropriate. Yes, some of them even have E-numbers.

  • Bicarbonate of soda
  • Baking powder
  • Dried yeast
  • Citric acid [E330]
  • Sodium nitrite [E250](saltpetre, used in tiny quantities in curing salt)
  • Sodium metabisulfite [E223] (Campden, used as a preservative and sterilising agent in brewing)

Condiments – while noting these are ‘red’ foods, they may be used occasionally, while looking for home-made alternatives.

  • Soy sauce
  • Mustard
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • Balsamic vinegar
  • Ketchup, brown sauce, sweet chilli sauce

It’s just under a week until we start. Looking forward to your comments!

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A Basket of Adorables – the chicks have hatched!

It’s surprising how long three weeks can seem, when you’re waiting for eggs to hatch! But by day 18, it definitely feels like you’re getting there. It’s time to go into ‘lockdown’, switch off any automatic turning devices, and increase the humidity in the incubator for hatching. Then, you just have to wait for the longest three days you can imagine.

As it happens, a couple of our chicks seemed in a bit of a hurry to get hatched, and we had our first external pip – the crack in the eggshell the chick makes to help it breathe before the real hatching effort takes place – on the morning of day 20.

eggscapade-3_1  eggscapade-3_2

You can imagine, I was checking the eggs every five or ten minutes! The excitement and anticipation was better than a childhood Christmas. The first cheeping sound from an as-yet unhatched egg was a magical noise. It suddenly seems plausible that, inside an egg which three weeks ago would have made a perfectly good omelette, there might be a tiny, perfect little creature. The hatching process from external pip to the chick finally emerging from the egg will commonly take 12-18 hours. An eternity! But by that evening, the very first chick – a Light Sussex – had hatched. We were on our way!

eggscapade-3_3

It is advised to leave newly hatched chicks in the incubator – which after all is perfectly warm and comfortable for them – for around 24 hours after hatching. This allows them to get all nice and dry and fluffed up, from their rather bedraggled initial state. They don’t immediately require food and water, as their internal egg sac continues to supply their needs for around 48 hours after hatching. The less often you open the incubator during hatching, the higher the humidity stays, which is important because if the egg membranes dry out during hatching they become stiff and crispy and can effectively ‘shrink wrap’ the chick and prevent it hatching, a tragic fate so late in the process.

Somehow, despite the excitement and anticipation, we managed to get some sleep that night. By the next morning, we had a second egg hatched, and a third making real progress. Day 21 – ‘hatch day’ – had begun.

We had 21 eggs in the incubator at ‘lockdown’, from the 24 we had started incubating – three eggs appeared infertile when we candled them at 10 days, so these were removed at that stage. By mid-morning on day 21, things had really got going.

eggscapade-3_4  eggscapade-3_5

At various points I was rather confused about how many chicks were hatched or actively hatching, and eventually the incubator became so full of chicks that it was impossible to keep track. A quick dive into the incubator to remove the first batch of fluffy chicks made a bit of space – and revealed a problem. One egg, which I had noticed pipping on the evening of day 20, over 18 hours ago, wasn’t making progress. I could see the chick moving inside, but there was only quite a small hole rather than the progressive line of chipped open shell that develops during an active hatch, and the membranes I could see appeared worryingly dry.

I had a decision to make. Most of the advice on hatching chicks will tell you not to intervene, and for good reason. Fiddling about with the incubator reduces the humidity and will increase the risk of hatching problems. Not only that, but hatching chicks are very fragile little creatures and the risk of causing catastrophic injury by interference is significant. Assisting a chick which isn’t quite ready to hatch is likely to lead to potentially life threatening bleeding from an umbilicus and from the blood vessels lining the shell which have not properly shut down yet, something that happens in the final hours before hatching. These are all extremely good reasons to leave well alone.

Another reason is also often given – that chicks which are not hatching correctly are probably ‘wrong’ in some way, and are as a result better left to die. This reason, I’m not buying. Animals of all sort can struggle to be born normally for all sorts of reasons, but many of those reasons are just plain bad luck – they find themselves positioned wrong (in the case of chicks, they fail to wriggle themselves around in the egg so that they can get their beak into the air cell, and start to breathe before hatching), or get tangled up somehow (with littler-mates, cords, or membranes). After speedy but considered soul-searching, I decided that this little chick needed my help, and that I was willing to go against the advice and try to assist the hatching.

Very gently, using my fingertips and a cotton bud damped with warm water, I enlarged the little hole the chick had made, until the cap – the bit of the shell overlying the air cell – was completely removed. I could see the little chick – a russety-coloured Rhode Island Red – tangled up tight in a rigid dried egg membrane, which had stuck to its downy feathers. Let me tell you, I was terrified of hurting the poor little thing and even tearing its skin as I eased the membrane away with my wet cotton bud. But very slowly, I was able to tease the membrane away without any damage to the little chick, releasing it from its entanglement. Having seen what was going on inside the egg, I have no regrets about helping – I can’t see how the chick could have got out on its own, it was well and truly welded to the membranes, had no way to rotate around to remove enough egg shell to complete its hatching, and would rapidly have been running out of the energy it needed to keep struggling. But I can also see quite how delicate, and risky, the process could be – and I might have been wrong, and taken those risks unnecessarily.

The rescued chick was popped back into the incubator. Meanwhile, we transferred the first batch of hatched chicks to the brooder cage which was set up in the corner of the living room.

eggscapade-3_9

The brooder set-up is a bit ‘make do and mend’. I had bought a second hand Brinsea Eco-glow ‘electric hen’ style brooder, rather than use the more traditional hanging heat lamp, both because it has far lower energy consumption than a lamp, and because it seemed to me a more natural thing from a behavioural point of view – chicks would likely feel more comfortable and reassured by a dark warm place to snuggle under than a mysterious warm light in the sky. The brooder cage is Dave the dog’s old puppy crate, wrapped around with cling film to prevent drafts at chick height, with cardboard baffles around the edges, and bedded with newspaper and a thin layer of clean dust extracted wood shavings.

Hatching continued at great pace. By bedtime on day 21, we had 15 hatched, with six eggs still in the incubator showing no sign of activity. While I was delighted by the little fluffy bundles, if I’m honest I was feeling a little disappointed with these numbers – which would have given us a total hatch percentage only just over 62% from the starting 24.

eggscapade-3_7  eggscapade-3_6

Patience is a virtue, and I was planning to give the eggs at least 48hrs after ‘due’ just to make sure no one was running behind. The following day (day 22) two more eggs had pipped, one hatched but the second failed to progress. We noticed that the water reservoir had run dry, which made me worry that perhaps it was another ‘shrink wrapped’ chick. After watching for a while, it looked like we were getting nowhere. I decided to intervene again, and carefully peeled this final chick out of the shell. The membranes were a bit dry but not quite as crispy as the little Rhode Island. This little chick had a visible umbilicus which seems to be some sort of a congenital abnormality. Maybe it isn’t quite ‘right’, but we’re giving it the benefit of the doubt for now.

With a total of 17 eggs hatched, there was no further activity in the final four, despite leaving them another couple of days. I candled the remaining eggs and three had clearly stopped developing at some point in the last week or so. The final one seemed to be absolutely packed full of chick, as you’d expect from a fully developed egg. But there was no sign of a little beak pushing into the air sac, and no sound from within the egg. Perhaps this was the unlucky one – positioned wrong and not able to get a breath to start the hatching process.

Our final statistics, by breed, for those of you who are curious about the nerdy details –

Our eggs originated from two batches, a dozen Buff Orpington eggs from one source, and dozen mixed breeds (RIR, Light Sussex, Vorwerk and Barnevelder) from a second. Both sets of eggs arrived in the post, he mixed breed eggs came about four days earlier than the Orpingtons and had probably been stored longer.

Breed – Initial (Removed – infertile) Hatched – %

  • Buff Orpington – 12 (0) 10 – 83%
  • RIR – 3 (1) 1 – 33%
  • Light Sussex – 4 (1) 3 – 75%
  • Vorwerk – 4 (1) 2 – 50%
  • Barnevelder – 1 (0) 1 – 100%
  • Mixed breed overall – 12 (3) 7 – 58%

Considering both batches of eggs went through the post, the significant difference between the two batches goes to show the value of obtaining the freshest possible eggs for incubation.

Two days after hatching, the little treasures look like this.

eggscapade-3_10

And they’re developing at a remarkable pace. After three days it’s quit clear you couldn’t cram them back into the egg, no matter how hard you tried. Wing feathers started to become visible within a couple of days, and the chicken behaviours are all coming along, eating and drinking, pecking and scratching, preening, dust bathing, and even bickering for pecking order.

eggscapade-3_12

Ten days after hatching, all 17 chicks continue to do well, including the weaker little final chick. Fingers crossed!

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Don’t Count your Chickens – incubation, day 10

On January 5th, I put my first ever batch of eggs into my incubator, after each one was weighed, numbered, and recorded. The instructions I’ve read all recommended candling after 7 days to check for evidence of development, which would have been this past Thursday.

Unfortunately, at short notice, I had to go away for a few days on Wednesday morning. Not knowing quite when I’d be back, I couldn’t resist sneaking a quick peek with the candling lamp on Tuesday night, at only 5 days incubation. I quickly picked four eggs at random from the 24 in the incubator and was delighted to see clear evidence of developing blood vessels in every one of them. Now, four was a small sample of the total, but it was a reassuring result!

I asked my husband to check all the eggs on Thursday, and let me know his findings. He emailed me his list, with ‘question marks’ over six eggs and definitely nothing in two. For a batch of eggs that had been through the post, these weren’t too bad, amounting to a failure to develop of 1/3rd of the total batch. But it was his first time candling and he wasn’t that confident, so we decided to leave all the eggs in the incubator, and I would double-check when I got back, whenever that happened to be.

A word or two about egg candling – this is a really simple technique which quite literally allows you to see inside the egg, by shining a very bright light through the shell while sitting in a darkened room. I’m afraid I haven’t got any photos from my candling session – I was far more concerned about getting it done carefully and quickly than about documenting the process – but there are plenty of good guides online, and any book about the hatching process should also be a good resource.

Fertile egg during candling [Creative Commons licensed image by Graibeard]

This photo gives an idea of what the developing embryo looks like within the egg at around 7 days. You can see the developing blood vessels inside the shell, the dark shadow of the embryo, and the bright air cell at the pointy end of the egg. Unfertilised eggs just look bright, with a bit of a shadow from the yolk. Darker-shelled eggs are harder to see detail in.

When I got home yesterday, I couldn’t wait to double check the eggs. To my delight, while I agreed with Hubby on his two ‘definite’ infertile eggs, only one of his six ‘question mark’ eggs appeared not to be developing. That means that, as of yesterday, I have 21 of my original 24 eggs still in play.

While I had them out for candling, I also weighed all my eggs. Tracking the weight loss of the eggs through incubation is really important because eggs need to loose around 14% of their total weight by evaporation during incubation. That way, the air cell is the right size at hatching so the chick is able to breathe without drowning during the hatch process. If the incubator has been too humid, there will be too little evaporation; if it has been too dry, then too much moisture can be lost, resulting in weak, undersized chicks. There are reported ‘target’ humidity ranges for hatching eggs of different species, but only really expensive incubators directly control and monitor humidity. What’s more, cheap electronic humidity meters (hygrometers – not the same thing as a hydrometer, which measures the density of a fluid) are notoriously unreliable, particularly outside normal room temperature ranges.

Egg recording spreadsheet 2

In most cases, then, we’re making a best guess at the humidity levels in the incubator. My incubator has two water channels in the base, and the instructions recommend filling one of them during incubation. (The second is filled later, at the 18 day mark, when we want to ramp the humidity of the incubator right up to help with hatching.) But the resulting humidity in the incubator has as much to do with the ambient, climatic temperature and humidity levels. The colder the outside air, the less moisture it can hold within it, resulting in lower humidity levels inside the warmed incubator. So how do we know we’re getting it right? Well, if we can compare the weight loss from the eggs with the target of 14% over 21days, by graphing, we can get a good idea if we’re in the right area.

This is what my weight loss data looks like.

Egg hatching weight loss graph

The long lines are the upper, middle, and lower bound of my expected weighs and weight losses. The shorter lines each represent one of the eggs in my incubator. As you can see, they aren’t quite all neatly parallel but all of them are within a reasonable variation of the target weight loss. One or two are more steeply angled down than the target. When I looked to see which eggs these were, they tended to be the ones located more centrally in the incubator. This makes a certain sense, as my incubator is a ‘forced air’ style incubator with a fan which circulates the air around. The fan is in the centre of the incubator lid, so while all the eggs in the incubator should be broadly at the same temperature, the ones in the centre are getting more of a draft, and that air movement will increase the evaporation from those eggs.

Bearing this in mind, I have ‘reshuffled’ the eggs in the incubator today to bring the eggs from the corners and sides in to the middle, and from the middle out to the edges, making sure to keep them pointy-end down at all times. This should hopefully equalise the water loss from the eggs during the second half of the incubation process.

At 10 days, now, we’re approximately half way there. A lot of things can still go wrong, and I’m certainly not counting my chickens just yet! But the excitement is definitely increasing…

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Ready, Set, Go – incubation has begun!

Last Thursday, I set 24 eggs in my incubator. We ran the incubator for 24 hours to check and stabilise the temperature before-hand. I think we have it all set up right – fingers crossed!

Eggs loaded into incubator

The eggs are made up of 12 Buff Orpingtons (I’ve been wanting a little breeding group of Orps for some time), sent to me by a very kind friend, along with a little ‘lucky dip’ selection including Rhode Island Reds, Light Sussex, and Vorwerk. All of the eggs have been through the post, which is reported to reduce their hatchability. So I have no idea at all how many little fluffy chicks we might actually be expecting at the end of the process!

Before being put into the incubator, I numbered and weighed each egg and dipped them in warm egg disinfectant, which is meant to reduce the risk of contamination causing infection which would kill the developing embryo. I have a spreadsheet (which will come as no surprise to those of you who know me) where I will be tracking the weight loss of the eggs and recording fertility and candling outcomes.

Egg recording spreadsheet

Our first idea how things are going comes after 7 days, when we should be able to candle the eggs – shining a bright light inside them to see if anything inside is casting shadows –  to find out which eggs are fertile and developing, and which are not.

So, here goes. Wish us luck!

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Beginnings and Endings – hopes of new life for a new year

The time around New Year is always a rather liminal time. A time of real and imaginary ends and beginnings. This year has been a particularly difficult one for me – and for a lot of people, I think. So, for the end of the year, I thought I would tell you a story. It’s a perfectly true story, as far as stories remembered from deep childhood ever can be. It’s a small story, really. But like many long-remembered stories, you can still hear its echoes, its resonance, if you listen.

In this story, I’m a small girl of six or seven. We’re on our first long-haul overseas holiday. It’s the first time we have left Europe, and we’re visiting California. We’ve ridden the teacups and the runaway mining cart at Disney World, and acquired a family portrait in pioneer dress, leaning on the rail of a wagon, which is still in the family album today. We’ve petted the bottle nose dolphins at Sea World, and marvelled at the flying Orca (this is long before Free Willy, and a more sensitive approach to these things). And on this particular day, we are at the San Diego Zoo.

Now, San Diego Zoo is an amazing place. Even in the mid 1980s, when our story takes place, it was a bastion of conservation zoology, blazing the trail with wide open, naturalistic, enriched enclosures. But I can’t honestly tell you that I remember any of that. Actually, that’s not quite true – I do remember the goat in the petting farm who stole a billfold from the back pocket of a man’s trousers, and then ate it. But apart from the goat with a taste for greenbacks, what I remember is the chicks.

P1120859

You see, there was an exhibit of hatching eggs. In my memory, it’s been set up in the middle of some sort of amphitheatre get-up, round or hexagonal maybe, with benching around, and a roof over. But who knows. Anyway, in the middle, is a large tray of hatching eggs in a big glass box. Fifty or sixty eggs. A few little chicks are standing around looking a bit dazed, some all fluffed up, some still rather damp and dishevelled. But this one egg, just here, is hatching. By family story, I refused to be moved for the more than two hours it took the chick to finally emerge from its shell. In my recollection, there’s no sense of time; just complete fascination and rapture.

img_3124

I can trace to that moment my focused fascination with animals, with biology and zoology. It must go some way to explain my later decision to study veterinary medicine, and so account, at least in part, for my current life as a working veterinary surgeon, and developing smallholder.

Earlier this year, I was thinking about the chicks for some reason – I can’t remember why, now – and I was struck with a thought that had somehow eluded me for the best part of three decades. San Diego Zoo, I realised, is not noted for its poultry collection. It is, however, recognised as holding one of the finest reptile collections anywhere in the world.

Now, I’m not overly sentimental, by and large. But the realisation, years later, that my little chick probably became snake food shook me. Looking back now, it was a very 2016 moment.

*

Why am I telling you this? Well, I’ve been thinking about chicks quite a lot, the past few days. And this is why.

img_3107On Christmas morning, I unwrapped an incubator. It’s a Brinsea Octagon Eco 20, with an automatic turning cradle, and I can think of few occasions, going right back to six year old me – perhaps with the exception of the year I received the My Little Pony Castle – when I have been so excited to unwrap a gift and get to work on the contents.

So, watch this space! I plan to load the incubator with a “pick ‘n mix” selection of fertile eggs next week, to hatch into a clutch of little fluffy chicks – with a lot of good luck, given it’s my first ever hatching attempt – around the end of January.

After what has been a pretty dreadful 2016, I could not be more ‘eggcited’ for 2017!

P.S. On the subject of bird ‘flu (H5N8 avian influenza), and the current restrictions in the UK – because someone is bound to ask – we’re lucky to have outbuildings here where we can keep our birds completely indoors if that becomes necessary. So while I’m hoping that restrictions will have been lifted by the time our little chickies are ready to go outdoors – once they have feathers rather than fluff, around the start of March – we’re in a really good position hopefully to take care of them while this awkwardness continues.

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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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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 GreenGardener.co.uk. 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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New Year, New Home – our plans for the garden

Crikey, we’re half way through January 2015 already – how did that happen?? It seems like only last week we arrived here, but it’s been over six months now since we moved, in the height of summer.

The house

It’s going to be an exciting year for us, and hopefully plenty of opportunities to showcase new skills and techniques here on the blog, too! Those of you who read here regularly will know that we were forced by the HS2 rail project to move from our lovely little cottage near Banbury. We decided to bite the bullet and make a big move – the move to the South West that Hubby and I had always told ourselves we would make ‘one day’, when the right opportunity arose. I have to say I’d always suspected the ‘right time’ might well have ended up being be 20 or 30 years from now, when we were thinking about retirement, so while it was a scary move, and stretches us financially, I’m delighted that we find ourselves here in Cornwall now, while we’re still young (well, relatively, hah!) and fit and able to work and build a life here and contribute to our local community. Even if it means we’re skint working-age folk rather than comparatively well-off retirees!

After an initial 6 months doing temporary contract work to keep our heads above water, I’ve started a new, permanent job for the new year, closer to home and with saner hours (occasional days off!) which will hopefully allow me to draw breath from time to time and spend a little more time making, doing and writing too!

So, as today is one such day, I thought I’d share a little about the projects we have coming up here at our beautiful new home in the course of the next year.

In the garden –

We’re amazingly lucky to have five acres of land with our new home, and in due course we hope to slowly build it up into a productive smallholding. For the time being we’re renting the pasture land to our neighbours for their sheep to graze, while we concentrate our time, effort, and resources around the house and gardens.

Dave dog on the paddock

Yes – gardens. I never thought I’d have gardens in the plural (well, if you ignore a scrap of front driveway!) but we have two, three if you count the old sheep fold where we’ve planted the orchard trees that we dug up and brought with us from our last home.

South gardenTo the south of the house, sloping away gently, we have a triangular garden with Cornish hedges on both sides which is going to be our ‘pretty’ garden. It has gorgeous views over Bodmin Moor and will be perfect for relaxing in on summer evenings if we ever get any time to rest!

The fish pondHubby has dug a pond here for our fish, who are settling in nicely, but otherwise this patch of land is likely to have to take a back seat for a while while we concentrate on more productive projects! With a bit of time and attention (ten years or so should do it!) I have high hopes for it being an even more beautiful place to be.

To the west side, we have an almost square, level garden with the house to one side and Cornish hedges to the other three sides, which essentially makes it a walled garden and the most protected growing space we have. This is an important factor as we’re nearly 900ft up on the edge of Bodmin Moor, and the winter weather and winds here can be a bit ferocious!

First raised bedsThis is going to be our kitchen garden, and as you can see the work has already started, the hens are settling in nicely, and the first three raised beds are planted with winter veggies.

We’re going to build a shed and a small seedling greenhouse here and add some more growing space as we go along. The soil is quite stony as we’re on granite and slate bedrock, but seems good and fertile so with a bit of luck and lots of patience and stone picking this should make for a lovely productive working garden. As long as we can keep the rabbits & mice at bay…

We plan to build a polytunnel outside the gardens to the side of the pasture paddock, to allow us to grow more tender plants like chillies, tomatoes, peppers and maybe even melons, and take even greater advantage of Cornwall’s lovely mild climate (well, by and large – it’s blummin’ chilly today!) and long growing season. The hens might even enjoy hanging out there in future winters, in the dry and out of the wind.

The hens nicely settledThe hens are doing OK now, after a disaster back in November when a stoat broke into the run and slaughtered three of the five girls we’d brought with us from Banbury. Of course, it killed my favourite, Midge, and I was completely heartbroken over the whole thing. We managed to find four new pullets to make up the numbers and all of them seem to be getting on really well now.

We’ve had far less trouble than on any previous hen introductions so we’re obviously getting the hang of this process. The new girls all have their own characters and temperaments and seem very chilled out around Dave dog, which is lovely.

There’s so much to do, but it’s so exciting! I’ve got some chillies in the heated window sill propagator (and rapidly realising I need a much bigger one!) and the first have germinated during the past few days. It won’t be long before every window sill in the house is full to bursting with seedlings – at least they’re nice thick walls, over two feet of solid granite for the most part, so I have plenty of ledge space.

Green shoots!

We missed out completely on last year’s growing season, which was torture. So even though we really should probably be focusing our time and efforts in other places, I refuse to let another whole growing year go by the wayside – it’s so very exciting to have seeds in compost again and to be seeing the very first green shoots of what should hopefully be our first great productive Cornish growing season!

Recycled cold frameIt’s a very conscious decision to concentrate our time and expenditure on the productive aspects of the gardens first – after all, the kitchen garden will go some way to feeding us. Landscaping and decorative planting, no matter how attractive, doesn’t help keep the larder stocked or reduce our food bills. We’re very much doing this on a budget, too – our rather lovely pair of cold frames are made from the glass out of the shower cubicle we had to replace when we got here.

Over the next few blog posts I’ll share with you some of our plans for the house – especially the kitchen – and for our outbuildings. Buckle up – it’s going to be a busy year!

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Cannelloni al Forno, from ‘Pasta’ – Cooking the Books, week 21

Apologies, first, for the late running of this blog series! Those more observant souls among you will have noted both that we’ve arrived at week 23 of the calendar and only managed to reach week 21 of the series, and that we seem to have skipped inexplicably over week 20 (technical difficulties, I’m afraid – I’m waiting for an SDHC card reader to come so that I can hopefully recover the images from a corrupted memory card!). I’m doing my best to get caught up, despite life happening in the form of an imminent house move, so please bear with me!

Apologies also for the quality of the photography in this (and subsequent) blog posts – until I’ve sorted out the memory card issues on the dSLR, we’re on iPad photographs I’m afraid!

Pasta - cover viewThis recipe is another Hubby-request. ‘I fancy cannelloni’, he said, when I asked what I should make for dinner. Now, I don’t believe I have ever made cannelloni in the eight years of our marriage (or before, for that matter), and I have no idea what put the idea in his head, but any excuse for a new cookbook is a good one, so I dived straight for this rather thick paperback tome, titled ‘Pasta’, which surely would contain the answer?

To make things all the more interesting, I’ve unearthed our recently-neglected pasta machine in the course of pre-move tidying, so why not really push the boat out and make a batch of fresh pasta, just for the occasion?

I must warn you, before you’re tempted to wade in and make this recipe – it takes an inordinate amount of time (about three hours), will make just about every pot, pan, bowl, and gadget in your kitchen dirty, and the end result is… well, read on, we’ll get to that bit!

For the fresh egg pasta, you will require –

  • Pasta ingredients300g ‘type OO’ flour (or strong white bread flour, if you can’t get the proper stuff)
  • Three eggs (please ignore the photographs only having two!)
  • A teaspoon of finely-ground sea salt
  • Semolina (optional but helpful)
  • A hand-cranked (or electric, if you’re posh!) pasta machine

Of course, you can skip the fresh pasta making and either use fresh lasagne sheets or prepared cannelloni tubes from the shop, if you prefer!

Make your doughIn your roomiest mixing bowl, add the flour and make a well, and break the three eggs into the centre. Sprinkle the salt and mix it into the eggs, breaking up the yolks, before slowly incorporating the flour. If you have hens like mine who tend to lay rather large eggs, you may need to add a little extra flour to stop the pasta dough being too sticky.

Once all the flour is incorporated, remove the dough from the bowl and kneed for about five minutes on the countertop. The dough will be much denser and firmer than bread dough, so don’t worry if you’re used to this. Then wrap the dough in cling film and set it aside for 20 – 30 minutes.

[You should start cooking the mince now, but for the sake of clarity I’m going to stay with the pasta and come back to the filling in a minute!]

Pasta machineFix your pasta machine firmly to a table or worktop using the clamp, and spread the surface generously with semolina. On the widest setting, run the pasta through the rollers. It will look like a complete dog’s dinner, torn and lumpy. Don’t worry. Fold the resulting mess in half, dust with semolina. If you haven’t got semolina, it’s not a big problem, just use flour – but you’ll miss out that characteristic texture. And repeat. And repeat. You’ll probably want to push it through the thickest setting at least ten times (this is essentially part of the kneading process) until what comes through is even textured, silky, and has relatively neat edges.

Single sheet of finished pastaThen, one step at a time, start to narrow down your rollers. The pasta sheet will get longer as it gets thinner (obviously, I suppose – but quite dramatically so!) so if it’s becoming difficult to handle, you can cut it in half. Keep the surface well dusted with semolina or the pasta will tend to stick to itself if you fold it over to handle it. As the sheet becomes thinner it should become really soft and silky – it’s really great stuff!

Finished pasta sheetsIn the end, it should be somewhat transparent (you can see the print of this oilcloth table cloth straight through it), silky and flexible. Cut out 12 lasagne-sized sheets and dust these generously both sides with flour or semolina, cover with a tea towel or cling film, and set aside. Any extra cut into sheets (or into ribbons if you prefer) and dry to use another day – hang them or lay out well spaced on a baking sheet lined with grease-proof paper and well dusted with flour or semolina.

For the meat filling (to serve four) you will need –

  • 300g of good quality minced beef
  • 50g of cold cooked ham or sausage. I improvised and used a Cumberland sausage along with a thick slice of smoked pancetta, because that was what I had available. I don’t think it matters!
  • Half an onion
  • One clove of garlic
  • Dried mixed herbs
  • 100ml of stock (I used vegetable bouillon powder, but beef stock would be better)
  • 2 tbsp bread crumbs
  • A handful of freshly-grated parmesan cheese
  • 1 egg
  • Salt and Pepper

Fry beef with onions and garlicStart by frying off the beef, finely chopped onion and minced garlic in a little olive oil until lightly browned. This will take about 5 – 10 minutes. Then add the stock, a teaspoon of dried mixed herbs, and a good pinch of pepper, cover with a lid, and simmer for about 20 more minutes. By this time most of the stock will have been absorbed and the onions will be extremely tender. Set aside in a bowl to cool.

[Now, you’ll want to start on your tomato sauce – but for the sake of clarity, again, I’ll follow through the beef filling first. Don’t worry, I’ll add a timeline at the end – yes, it really is that sort of recipe!]

Filling ingredientsChop up your cooked, cold ham or sausage, and add this to the cooled beef, along with the parmesan cheese, breadcrumbs, and egg, and mix well. The recipe tells you to taste this for seasoning, which, given you’ve just added a raw egg, probably isn’t advice that many people ought to follow – I would trust your seasoning to date, remember your ham / sausage, parmesan and stock are likely to contain salt, and just add a little black pepper.

Take each sheet of fresh pasta, spoon on some of the beef filling, and roll. Set these aside for now. Now to the tomato sauce.

Fill your cannelloni    Set filled cannelloni aside

For the tomato sauce –

  • Half an onion
  • Half a carrot
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • A celery stick (if you like – I really don’t so I don’t keep them in the fridge!)
  • 1 can of chopped tomatoes (400g)
  • 1/2 tsp dried basil
  • 1/2 tsp dried oregano
  • Olive oil, salt and pepper

Finely chop the onion, carrot (and celery, if you’re using it) and mince the garlic, and fry these gently in a little olive oil until softened.

Tomato sauceNow add the can of chopped tomatoes, herbs, salt and pepper (I used a little vegetable stock powder instead of salt to season, to compensate for the lack of celery – this is something I often do when making sauces, actually!). I also nearly always add a little splash of vinegar to tomato sauces – balsamic is good, but I prefer the fruity character of my home-made elderberry vinegar. Add about half a can of water, too.

Mix well, cover and simmer for about 20 minutes. Once it’s cooked, blend with a stick blender or in a food processor so it’s (nearly) smooth.

Assemble dish with tomato sauceYou can start to assemble the dish now – put a thin layer of tomato sauce in the bottom of your oven dish, then arrange the filled cannelloni (in one layer if at all possible!) followed by the rest of the tomato sauce on top.

But we’re still not there yet! Preheat your oven to 190C.

Now you just need the white sauce…

  • 30g butter
  • 30g plain flour
  • 600ml milk
  • Nutmeg (whole, ideally)
  • A handful of freshly grated parmesan

Ready for the ovenMake your white sauce – melt the buter gently in the pan, add the flour and stir in, and cook the butter and flour mixture for a minute or two (keep stirring). Then add the milk, a little to start with and whisk it into the roux, then add the rest and cook until you get it about the thickness of double cream. Add in some freshly grated nutmeg to taste.

Pour  the white sauce over the top of the cannelloni, and then sprinkle over the parmesan. Put the whole thing in the oven for about 40 – 45 minutes until rich golden on top and the pasta is tender.

That timeline, for clarity (you really do want to do it this way, if you do one at a time the whole thing will take closer to five hours than three!) –

  1. Make pasta dough, set aside to rest.
  2. Cook off beef with onion and garlic, add stock and cover
  3. While the beef is cooking, roll out the pasta into sheets and cut up
  4. Once the beef is done, set aside to cool
  5. Start veggies for tomato sauce
  6. Add tomatoes and set to simmer
  7. Make up the meat filling with additional ingredients
  8. Assemble your cannelloni with their filling, set aside
  9. Blend tomato sauce, assemble tomato & filled cannelloni in oven dish
  10. Set oven to 190C
  11. Make your white sauce, pour over, sprinkle parmesan
  12. Put in oven
  13. Finally pour yourself a well-deserved glass of wine.
  14. But don’t relax too much, you should probably tackle the enormous mountain of washing up!
  15. Serve and enjoy!

Cannelloni al forno

*Phew*! Exhausting or what?

So, what about the recipe? Well, I scaled it down from serves-6 to serves-4 by reducing the quantities by 1/3rd – all apart from the tomato sauce, which I really couldn’t be bothered with, since it used a whole can of tomatoes, and sensible quantities of other things. Despite this, the cooked cannelloni is really very dry – tastes good, but all of the moisture in the tomato and white sauce was completely sucked into the pasta.

12 cannelloni between 4 is too many, I think – I would probably reduce to 8 cannelloni but keep the same amount of filling. I think you could easily get away with doubling the volume of the tomato sauce, though if you reduced the pasta by 1/3d you may get away with increasing by 50%. I would add some extra stock, or maybe some wine, and increase the carrot to a whole one. I might also consider adding some ricotta cheese to the beef filling, to moisten it a little.

The recipe proofreading leaves a lot to be desired. The onion appears in the ingredients list for the beef filling but is never mentioned in that part of the instructions, so I just had to guess (I can’t see that you would want to leave it out, it seems essential to me). While I personally am willing to eat raw egg, advising tasting for seasoning after this addition in a recipe without caution is probably inappropriate.

Re-heated with extra stockI re-heated the second half of this for lunch today (adding about half a pint of good rich stock made from roasting juices) covered tightly in a medium oven. It was improved by the extra liquid, and reheated well.

I don’t think I would ever re-make this recipe just for the two of us. It’s far too much time, trouble and washing up! It is quite a promising recipe, but I wouldn’t call it good, as it stands. There are some interesting flavours and textures. I think a few rounds of trial and error and you could create something really fabulous from this starting point, starting by correcting the obvious deficiencies above – but I’m not convinced I wouldn’t be better off just finding a better cannelloni recipe!

Modulo the above, it *could* be a really good meal for feeding a large crowd, especially as you could make the cannelloni and the tomato sauce ahead of time – the day before, even (keep them separate, and in the fridge, until you’re ready to bake).

**
Pasta, Jeni Wright (contributing editor)
Hermes House (Anness Publishing Ltd), 2003
ISBN 978-1-843-099-277
Soft cover, 512 pages, full colour. No RRP published.

[Full disclosure: This is my book. I have received no payment or sponsorship for this post, nor have I accepted a review copy. I do not have an amazon affiliate account and do not profit from any links provided.]

Pasta - inner page viewThis is a cookbook with a ‘contributing editor’ instead of an author, and as I’ve worked though the cookbooks on my shelf, that’s becoming more and more of a red flag. Admittedly on a sample size of a single recipe (out of the 350 ‘inspirational recipes’ promised on the cover), there are mistakes, omissions, and the result, while it shows definite promise, is moderately unsatisfactory as-is.

The frustrating thing is that, due the highly-illustrated style of cookbook, someone has clearly cooked this recipe in order to photograph it – if they noticed the problems with the recipe, nothing was done about it!

I may give this book a second try, but I think there’s a good chance of this one ending up in the charity-shop pile in due course. I’m learning my lesson, though – at the end of this year of recipes, I think I’m going to be a much more discerning customer of the bargain bin!

‘Cooking the Books’ is my self-imposed blog challenge for 2014 – I’ll be trying to cook a new recipe from one of my (rather extensive!) collection of cookbooks once a week, write it up and review it. Wish me luck!

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