The Key, The Secret? – spicy pickled ash keys

I first came across the idea of pickled ash keys in Adele Nozedar’s lovely book ‘The Hedgerow Handbook, which I reviewed last year. I was intrigued at the time, but it was the wrong time of year to forage nice young ash keys (actually, I think I may have been a little late this year, too, but more of that later).

A lovely veteran ash treeAsh trees have been in the news lately, at least in the UK, with the arrival last year of ash dieback, a fungal disease now threatening some of the great, veteran trees of the British landscape. Historically, oak, elm and ash were the ‘big three’ trees in these parts, majestic and long-lived, our elms sadly disappeared for the most part several decades ago, succumbing to Dutch elm disease, and it seems now as if the ash, too, may be at risk of all but disappearing from our landscape.

Ash keysBefore too long, ash keys (the twisted seeds of the ash tree, which hang in luxurious bunches from the branches of some – but not all – ash trees at this time of year) may be a vanishing treat, the caviar of the forager’s larder. So why not try them now, before it’s too late? Incidentally, don’t confuse the common ash with the mountain ash, or rowan tree, which produces clusters of (also highly forageable!) bright orange or red berries in autumn.

So, you’ve found a local ash tree positively dripping with lovely young, green ash keys. What now?

After pickingWell, first, you’ll need to pick some, obviously. I made rather a large batch of pickled ash keys, starting with about 800g (approximately a mean couple of pounds). The older they get, the tougher and stringier they will become, so pick them as young and tender as you can.

As well as your ash keys, you will require –

  • 1.5l / 3 UK pints of white distilled malt vinegar (spirit vinegar)
  • 3 tbsp of paprika
  • 3 tbsp of curry powder (I used a medium madras powder, because it was what I had on the shelf)
  • 1.5 tbsp of cayenne pepper
  • 4 tbsp sea salt
  • a heaped teaspoon of whole mixed peppercorns
  • a level teaspoon of whole yellow mustard seed
  • 6 – 8 garlic cloves
  • 12 small hot dried red chillies (I used my own home-grown and dried little chillies left over from last year)
  • A large stainless steel or enamel saucepan or stockpot, a smaller pan (also non-reactive), large colander, a fine sieve and a piece of muslin, and enough jam jars for your batch.

Washed ash keysPick all the ash keys free from their bunches, and wash them carefully. The first part of the process involves gently simmering your ash keys for about an hour and a half, in all, in four changes of water.  This process, while irritatingly time consuming and faffy, reduces the bitterness of the ash keys which would otherwise make them rather unpleasant to eat.

Simmering the ash keysThe smell that this process generates is not very promising – it will smell rather like you’re boiling up a pot full of bits of tree, which you are, of course. But this abates each time you change the water, and after the fourth water change the colour of the ash keys is closer to olive green than to the bright green that you started with, and if you have a speculative nibble on one (I couldn’t resist), it’s quite stringy, not particularly strong tasting, but not noticeably bitter.

Spiced vinegar steepingWhile your keys are simmering away gently, you need to make your spiced vinegar. In your smaller saucepan, combine the spirit vinegar, paprika, cayenne pepper, and curry powder, bring to the boil and then take immediately off the heat.

Strain the spiced vinegarThis smells quite marvellous. Once it’s cooled a bit (you can help it along by sitting the saucepan in a sink full of cold water), strain it through the muslin in the sieve, and if you’re not quite ready to use it, you can use a funnel to put it back inside the vinegar bottles for safekeeping. Incidentally, I’d forgotten I had some muslin and initially tried to strain the vinegar through a paper coffee filter. I can report this was very frustrating and a huge waste of time, effort and coffee filters. So, now you know not to bother!

Ash keys mixed with saltOnce the ash keys have done their four turns around the simmer 20 minutes, strain, change water circuit, they’re an olive-green colour and ready to be stewed (yes, some more!). Add the 4 tbsp of sea salt, and plenty of fresh water, and bring to a brisk boil for a quarter of an hour, before turning the heat down, covering, and simmering for another 60 minutes before finally straining again.

At the end of this, they will have softened a fair bit, and have a gently salted taste, and you will probably be royally fed up of boiling up ash keys. Don’t worry, it’s nearly done!

Strained spiced vinegar, set aside  Chillies, peppercorns, garlic & mustard  Ash keys in spiced vinegar with garlic and chillies

Now, add to the strained ash keys the spiced vinegar, along with the whole dried chillies, peppercorns, mustard seeds and peeled whole garlic cloves. Bring to a brisk boil for 15 minutes, and take off the heat. That’s it, you’re (essentially!) done, and your house probably smells like a very strange hybrid of a chip shop and a curry house. Set the pickled ash keys aside to cool. I left mine overnight, because it was pretty late by the time I finished them, and my big stock pot holds its heat quite stubbornly.

Fill your jarsWash, dry and sterilise your jam jars in the oven, then allow to cool before filling. I used 13 little ‘dumpy’ jars and two 330ml pickle jars for my batch. Assume you need at least the volume of your vinegar, and probably a bit extra, in jar capacity. Pack the ash keys, along with the chillies, garlic, peppercorns and mustard seeds, evenly but quite tightly into your jars. Once you’ve done this, fill the jars right to the brim with the spiced vinegar, and seal.

Filled jars of pickled ash keys

Don’t they make a pretty little lot? They need to be matured now in a cool, dark place for at least 2 – 3 months. But I did have a taste, and the omens are really promising – there’s a long but gentle heat from the combination of the whole chillies and the spiced vinegar, a little garlic note, and out of nowhere a subtle but noticeably ‘olive’ flavour from the ash keys themselves.  The acidity is not at all harsh, which is unexpected, there’s an almost sweet character which must come from the keys themselves as there’s no sugar in the pickle. They are, though, still a bit stringy (though much less so than earlier in the cooking process) – I think if I’d picked in May rather than leaving it until June, this may have helped! I expect they’ll continue to soften while they steep in their jars of vinegar.

All in all, then, a bit of a revelation, these ash keys! I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I don’t think it was much like this! I can’t wait to see what they’re like in a couple of months time, but I think they’ll make a very nice substitute for olives or capers, and will probably go a treat with a nice mature cheddar.

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

Simple Summer Sewing – make a quick, cheap, pretty beach and pool cover-up

I can’t take the credit for the idea here – I’d seen a photo of something similar on Pinterest some time ago, and tracked instructions on the ‘Vie en Rose’ blog (and you should go and take a look at these, the rest of the post will make a lot more sense!) at the time. Then I more or less forgot about it until I started thinking about what to pack for our summer holiday. It seemed the perfect alternative to a sarong, easier to wear and a bit more ‘shaped’.

So I picked up some remaindered floral print cotton jersey on Ebay for about a fiver, and got started with it on my day off a week or two ago.  I’d offered up a sarong to get an idea of how wide a piece of fabric I needed, and came to the conclusion that the ‘ideal’ size was about 10cm wider than the width of fabric I had.  Slightly irritating.

Rather than chop a lengthwise section from my 2.5m length (seemed wasteful!), I decided to take a punt on the 1.6m width and hope the bit of stretch in the jersey and the inherent ‘forgivingness’ of the pattern would let me get away with it.  This decision rather forced my hand in terms of hemming – no spare fabric for this, and worse, I was going to have to use the selvedge, rather than trimming it, too. I know, I know, two cardinal sins of sewing and dressmaking just there. But do bear with me, this is quick and cheerful stuff, but the result is surprisingly good!!

Decide roughly how long you want your wrap, measuring from about armpit length downwards, and make this the width of your piece of jersey fabric.  Make sure all the edges are nice and straight as you cut your piece, as these will be your finished edges. I used a cutting mat and roller for speed and convenience, but you could manage carefully with fabric scissors.

Shape the armsThe only piece of shaping required is around the arm holes. I used a strappy top I own as a reference template. Line it up at the top of the ‘body’ and mark out the arm shape. If you fold the fabric in half, you can cut both sides together, so they’ll be symmetrical.

Cut the arm shapingMark (this is the reverse side!) with a pen or pencil. Then just cut carefully along the mark.

Now it’s just a question of working out how to attach a for each shoulder. I measured the strappy top from where I’d stopped shaping the arm hole, up to the seam at the top of the shoulder, and then back down to the seam at the underarm.

Measure for the strapsThis gave me a length of about 40cm as an estimate for the strap length. The blog tutorial I found made braided straps, and you could certainly do this.  I had my sewing machine conveniently to hand, so it was just as quick to make tubes – I cut two lengths about 2.5cm wide and 40 cm long, sewed along the length with right sides together, trimmed the seam allowance and then turned them carefully the right way out.  This was actually pretty fiddly and time consuming, but I think gives a nice finish.

Straps sewn in placeOnce your straps are ready, safety pin them in place and try on your cover up. This will allow you to adjust the strap length to suit your preferences (I shortened mine by about 5cm in the end).  Now, I can see no reason at all to post photos of myself in my bathing suit on the internet, so you’ll have to refer to the original tutorial for fitting photographs. Once you’ve decided on the right strap length, hand sew the straps in place firmly.

If you’re using a solid coloured fabric, this should give a pretty nice finish, but you can see with my contrasting print it’s all rather scruffy!  But it’s done. Try it on and flounce about in it a bit, pretending to be standing by a beach bar somewhere delightfully tropical.

Buttons!I wasn’t quite happy with the strap sewing, so I gave it some thought. Eventually it was a colleague who suggested buttons, which were an inspired solution.  I had a dig around, eventually found my button box, and excavated these four pretty little off-black beauties.

Strap with buttons in placeSewn in place over the strap joins, they completely conceal my scruffy sewing.  Hurray!

I’ve considered shaping the short edges on a slight angle to cut away the worst of the selvedge, but although I know it’s there, it really isn’t obvious, so I’ll probably leave it for now. If it annoys me later, I’ve always got the option!

Finished beach wrapWell, there it is! I’m really pleased with it, I think it’ll work beautifully as a cover-up over swim wear, for the beach of the pool this summer.  It’s such a quick ‘make’, not sure I agree with the ’20 minute’ assertion, but certainly well under an hour, all told. And all for well under a fiver. Practical summer style on a serious budget!

Fun crochet beach bagIncidentally, I’ve also finished the crochet beach bag I was working on a few weeks ago. I’ll  do a full tutorial at some stage when I re-make it (there were a few details I got wrong with this one that I’d like to do right next time!), but I’m still pretty thrilled with it, it’ll do very nicely by the pool this summer with plenty of space for a paperback, the sunscreen, sunglasses, and of course the cover up!

I’m feeling rather excited about the summer now… Bring it on!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

Grow A Taste of the Exotic East – propagate & grow your own lemongrass

It was James Martin, during the masterclass I attended last year, who first whetted my appetite for growing my own lemongrass. Two things were worrying me, though. Firstly, we have cold winters here – it’s usual to get nights down to well below -10C during the winter, and lemongrass is a tropical plant. Secondly, and more prosaically, was where on earth I was going to get hold of a lemongrass plant?

Some months later, with the idea still in the back of my mind, I stumbled across a blog which suggested you could propagate lemongrass successfully from stalks bought for cooking – yep, those rather dry, slightly disappointing bunches of grey-white woody stems from the supermarket. (I regret I didn’t make a note of the blog that inspired me, and I can’t find it now, so can’t give credit.) But the process was very simple.  Immerse your lemongrass stalks in a bit of water, in a vase on a bright window sill. Change the water daily, and wait for it to root. Once you’ve got good roots, plant them out. That’s it.

The lemongrass stemsWell, that sounded like a horticultural challenge at my sort of level! And what was to lose, apart from a quid or so for a bunch of lemongrass. (The observant among you will notice there are two different ‘sets’ of lemongrass stems here – the shorter bunch came from the supermarket, whereas the slightly taller ones came from our local Thai market. Neither cost more than a pound.)

The first thing you’ll see, within a few days, is some fresh green growth emerging from the top of your stems.  Then, after a week or so, with a bit of luck, root buds will appear.  Do change the water for fresh every day (I forgot for a few days and it all got a bit manky, algae-ish and unpromising-looking in there), and try to keep them in a nice bright, warm situation.

Growing nicelyFour weeks later, my stems looked like this (I separated the different sets of stems into two separate pint glasses because they looked a bit crowded as the roots started to grow) with primary and secondary roots showing, and lots of new top-growth. With secondary roots present, I felt pretty confident potting up the lemon grass.

Good root growthI’m surprised – but thrilled – to be able to report that *every single one* of the stems rooted successfully.  The Thai market lemongrass rooted a bit faster than the supermarket stuff – I suspect it was rather fresher! – but a week later, that was ready to pot up, too.

Potted up and in the greenhouseI decided to split the stems up and pot them on into three terracotta pots.  Keep these well watered especially for the first few days, since the roots are pretty puny and they’re used to having all the water they can drink. I kept them on the same sunny window sill for a couple of weeks, as the nights were still rather cold, but now they’re out on the greenhouse staging.

I’m thrilled to see some brand new stems emerging over the past few days.  Of course, I’m anticipating them coming back indoors onto a sunny window sill through the winter – like other warm climate plants like chillies, they don’t appreciate temperatures below 10C, so somehow I can’t see them surviving outside, even in the unheated greenhouse!

New stems emerging

All I can say is – propagating lemongrass like this is cheap, it’s simple, and it works – try it! If you enjoy cooking Thai or other East Asian food, or fusion dishes, there’s nothing better than your very own freshly grown and harvested lemon grass! I can’t wait!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

Chive Flower Vinegar – a liquid taste of summer – make this NOW!

If you have chives in your garden, and live in the northern hemisphere, it’s a good bet you’ve got chive flowers now. Please, if you do nothing else this weekend, don’t let all that beautiful chive blossom go to waste – seize the opportunity to make some chive flower vinegar!

Chive flowers growing in the garden

I made this for the first time last year, just a small batch in a 330ml jam jar, with white wine vinegar and about a dozen chive flowers from the garden. It was *glorious*.

The vinegar is somewhere between a slight blush pink and a brash almost pinky-purple, and has a lovely fresh onion flavour which complements salads and savoury dishes perfectly. I guarded my single bottle of 2012 vintage chive flower vinegar jealously, knowing it would be a year before I’d be able to make any more.

But this story, sadly, has a tragic end.  On Christmas Eve, while I was buzzing around the kitchen trying to do all of those last minute things, I opened an over-full kitchen cupboard and my precious bottle of chive flower vinegar tumbled off the shelf, bounced on the counter, and smashed into a million pieces on the slate floor. The kitchen was filled with the gorgeous fresh smell of chives. I could have cried. Instead, I mopped, not at all comforted by the fact that the floor came up absolutely *beautiful* from its vinegar rinse!

It’s fair to say that I’ve been waiting for chive flower season ever since. And now it’s here. Usually, I’d wait to blog a recipe or process like this until it was complete and I could show it to you all the way through. But you need to make this now – not in a few weeks time when the vinegar will be infused and ready to bottle – so here goes.

So, for your very own, glorious chive flower vinegar, you will need to get together the following –

  • Gather all your lovely, fresh, open chive flowers.  Even if you only have about a dozen, it’s worth making a small batch (I successfully made about a 330ml volume of vinegar in a large jam jar lat year). Pick them with as little stem as you can, and give them a good shake to dislodge any resident insect life.
  • I like to use white wine vinegar, though I know others use cider vinegar, rice wine vinegar, or even white malt vinegar. Champagne vinegar would be a ‘premium’ choice. Choose something light coloured to bring out the  lovely colour of the chive flowers.
  • A jar the right size to take all your chive flowers and vinegar. A kilner-type jar with a rubber gasket is ideal, but a large jam jar will do fine, as long as it has a plastic-lined lid. Wash and dry the jar carefully before use.
  • A colander to wash the flowers, and a salad spinner, if you have one (I don’t).

Wash and dry your chive flowersI’m going to come clean here, and admit that I didn’t grow all of these chive flowers. Hubby was able to scrounge them from a lovely kitchen garden!  After removing as much of the stalk as you can, give them a good wash to remove any bugs and insects – a few ants were all that seemed to come in on these ones – and give them a good shake to remove any water, or put them in a salad spinner for a few turns.

Put the flowers into your jarThen put all your flowers in your jar. Mine is a 2l kilner jar but use whatever you have conveniently to hand – probably not something quite this large! Mine happens to be filled but it doesn’t need to be, 1/4 to 1/3rd full will still give you a lovely infusion, though the colour won’t be so striking.

Top up with vinegarNow top up with your choice of vinegar. To give you an idea, the 2l jar filled with flowers took just over 1.5l of vinegar to fill it all the way to the top.

Keep the vinegar bottles – you can re-fill them with the infused vinegar later. As an extra bonus, the labels came off these bottles pleasingly easily!

Now, close your jar, and put it somewhere cool and dark for a couple of weeks.  I’m planning to infuse it for 3 – 4 weeks, but  keep an eye on it and have the occasional taste, as it may be that you’re happy with it earlier. Once you’re happy, strain the vinegar through a fine sieve or a muslin back into the vinegar bottles, label, and store in a kitchen cupboard or larder until you’re ready to use it.

Infusing in kilner jar

There you go – simplicity itself! It’s thrifty, too – just the price of some basic vinegar, and a little bit of time, give you this gorgeous very special condiment. Make some this weekend, I promise you won’t regret it. In a few weeks you’ll be enjoying this gorgeous, fresh, oniony-summery-savoury note with all your favourite salads and summer dishes.  But keep some back, too, for later in the year. Like elderflower cordial, it brings an amazing bottled aroma and taste of summer to your table in the colder, darker months!

Look at this amazing colour!

P.S. Just a quick update to give you an idea of the colour – this is my vinegar jar after just 48 hours infusing in the cupboard under the stairs. Gorgeous, isn’t it?

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

The Eurovision Drinking Game – because in the country, you make your own fun!

Making your own entertainment is, most definitely, a country skill. Living out of town, you don’t have access to restaurants, bars and cinemas without resorting to the car or a rather expensive cab. There’s the pub, and village activities – a great sense of community, but necessarily limited in it’s options!

European FlagsIt’s been said that, while the rest of Europe may feel embarrassed or nonplussed, sometimes, by the cultural festival that is the annual Eurovision Song Contest, the British are the only ones who seem to think it’s a drinking game. [If you’re not European, then I’m sorry, the rest of this post is likely to be pretty confusing!].

There are many variations, of course, but this one one is *mine*. I started developing it when I was still a student, and a number of victims have ‘play-tested’ it for me over the years (you know who you are!). Some even remembered enough the next day to make suggestions for improvements, which have been incorporated over time.

So, revised and refreshed, in time for the 2013 Eurovision Song Contest, which this Saturday will come from Malmo, in Sweden, it’s time to offer it up as a game for the world to enjoy! Break out the home-brewed cider, and play along!

Introduction –

This game is based on the songs and performances that make up the Eurovision Song Contest. Features of songs and performances are identified, and carry drinking forfeits (usually ‘take a swig’ with a small number of exceptions).

Euro shot glassesEveryone at the party *could* play for every song, but that may be unwise! Better, probably, to divide up the performances between the party-goers, either by drawing lots before the contest starts, or drawing straws between the performances, which adds a more immediate sense of peril and means some people might end up amusingly and disproportionately ‘picked on’ (clustering in random distributions is a bitch!).

Obviously, if it’s a very small party, not all songs need to be allocated, and likewise, in a big group, more than one player can play for any given song. (Also see ‘variations’ suggested below.) Non-drinkers & children can still have fun by identifying and shouting out the trigger rules when they appear.

And now, the rules –

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

These are the ‘trigger’ features of songs and performances for which the player should drink. These features can appear more than once in a performance (and sadly, often do!), and ‘score’ each time they appear – so the famous ‘Bucks Fizz’ skirt removal would be a single costume change, because it happened in one go, but a song that repeatedly swaps languages or makes major-to-minor-and-back-again key transitions gets a drink on each switch.

Sheet MusicThe song itself –

  • Song is not in an official language of the country being represented
  • Change of language
  • Change of key
  • Change of tempo
  • Wordless lyrics (da dum da, mana mana mana, lalalala)

Military 'uniform'The performer, costume and performance –

  • Performer(s) not of nationality represented
  • Folk costume
  • Folk instrument
  • Folk dance
  • Weapons (with an extra-big swig if they’re ‘folk’ weapons – axes, pitchforks, flaming torches etc)
  • Uniforms – military & civil (including costume references to same – epaulettes, insignia, military-looking hats and suchlike)
  • Flags & banners
  • PyrotechnicsPyrotechnics
  • Costume change
  • Underwear as outerwear
  • Spandex, lurex, sequins
  • Leather, rubber, PVC, bondage wear
  • LEDs or other lighting incorporated into costumes
  • Fur, feathers, wings
  • Trapeze or wire-work
  • Magic, circus themes

and, last but not least

  • Performer does not appear to be human – note this rule applies whether the performer *is* human underneath or not! – This is the big forfeit. Down the remains of your drink.

Russian folk-dancersThe half-time performance (or the ‘Riverdance’ slot) –

Traditionally the host country puts on a performance on during the ‘voting gap’. Everyone plays for this one. Use the same forfeit list above, but all penalties are doubled.

Voting –

I haven’t got rules for the voting – in my experience the mood of the assembled party generally doesn’t require any further ‘lifting’ by that stage in the evening!

Variations –

Rather than allocating countries’ songs to players by ballot, the enthusiastic party host could assemble a trivia question for each country in the contest (as simple or as fiendish as they like!). Players getting it wrong would play that country’s song. Of course, this is less fun if the host was planning on playing too, as they’ll know all the answers.

Well, that’s it, folks! Have fun at all your Eurovision parties, and if you do decide to try these rules, do let me know how you found them, and any suggestions you might have for improving them in future years.

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

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

Living in Glass Houses – DIY greenhouse build

I have to admit to having wanted a decent greenhouse for as long as I can remember. Growing up, my grandmother’s neighbours had a beautiful greenhouse and vegetable garden, which I used to admire from over the fence, and I suspect my life-long enthusiasm for the glass-house springs in part from this!

Dave, showing off his new greenhouse!

Apologies, incidentally, for the quality of the photography in this post – I made the mistake of thinking I had enough on my hands and that photos from my mobile phone would be ‘good enough’ rather than worrying about the SLR as well as everything else.  The photos took ages to tidy up and even now aren’t really up to my usual standard!

A little while after Christmas, while we were watching telly, I asked hubby whether we were really going to get on and build a greenhouse this year.  Yes, he agreed, we definitely were. So I did a bit of digging around, and had more or less decided that for what we required, a baby polytunnel was probably going to be more cost effective and sensible.  Then, deploying his superior (well, so he says) google skills, he turned up a 6ft x 10ft aluminium and polycarbonate greenhouse for about the sort of price I was finding for tunnels.  It seemed like a no brainer, so we got on and ordered it. It arrived a week or so later.

It’s been sat in the garden in two boxes since then, of course, because the weather we’ve had this winter can only be described as ‘not compatible with construction projects’.  As it happens, I’ve given up complaining about the weather for Lent (yes, it’s been that bad!), so I’ll spare you the details.  It finally started to dry out a little a couple of weeks ago, so we finally had a window to get going with the ground works.

The intended site for the greenhouse is on our ‘paddock’, which is a scrappy bit of ridge and furrow pasture land, most of which we planted for an orchard three years ago.  The grass is very established and the land isn’t level (the clue is in the ‘ridge and furrow’!). The only way we were ever going to get a level frame for the greenhouse was to dig a ‘slot’ for it out of the pasture grass to level it, and set a frame of breeze-blocks on which to rest the building.

You’ll need a good spade, a turf cutting tool and ideally, a mattock. We measured out the 6ft by 10ft rectangle and got to work.  Once we’d cleared the space, it occurred to us to consider in more detail the ‘6 x 10ft (aprox)’ size given on the greenhouse packaging.  It turned out the greenhouse was sized in something that could only be described as ‘metric feet’ by its German manufacturers.  Armed with the metric measurements, we enlarged the slot by a reasonably generous margin, and turned in for the evening, pleased with ourselves for having completely cleared the required space, and confident we could crack right on with building the greenhouse the following day.

The next day dawned cold.  Really cold – barely above freezing, in fact, despite being late February.  Undaunted, we put on our ski jackets and thick woollen socks, and headed back out to the greenhouse site. We’d gathered together enough lightweight breeze blocks to do the job – the sort that are made from a sort of concrete ‘froth’, a bit like an aero bar, and would float, if you let them.  Our sophisticated building and levelling tools were the spade and mattock from the previous day, a spirit level, and some string.  The blocks themselves were to act as ‘squaring’ guides, in due course.  And, as we hadn’t yet managed to pick up a bag of sharp sand, we had only the soil itself to use to pack the blocks straight and level.

Assembling the brake blocksThe first course of blocks assembled itself quite straightforwardly.  The mattock is a great help in cutting a clean trench, and then the blocks just go in one after another, with a check on level and height adjustment on each.  After setting the corner as square as we could using one of the blocks for reference, a couple of pegs and a length of string set the alignment for the next course.  Things were going well!

Two courses more or less complete, we wanted to make sure we had the right dimensions for the greenhouse, so we decided to get out the base from the kit and get that assembled for reference.  This done – and it was nice and straightforward (though it revealed that the assembly instructions were a ~50 page pictographic document, in the IKEA tradition) – we offered the frame to the greenhouse site, and discovered our slot was too narrow, given the width of the blocks.  In a stroke of good luck, we also discovered the base build could be bodged to use only whole blocks, which was a huge bonus.

Three courses placedCarrying on with the cut, measure, level, we had three courses installed.  We laid out, crudely, the blocks for the fourth course.  Inevitably, this is when you discover that, rather than a neat rectangle, and despite your most careful efforts, you’ve built some sort of trapezoid only theoretically known to mathematics. A bit of head-scratching and adjustments to the squaring, requiring a bit of extra turf cutting, and we put down the fourth course.

Greenhouse base, complete

It had been trying to snow all afternoon, and we’d been outside for five continuous hours laying the foundation blocks. It seemed apparent that one of the corners (the back one, in this photo) was lower than it should have been, but we were running out of energy, and light.  We tidied up and came back indoors, and gave up for the weekend.

Pro-tip: you know you’re really, properly, cold to the core when you *start* shivering several minutes after you get into a nice warm bath…

Skip ahead, then, through a working week to this weekend.  Finishing the greenhouse was our main order of business.  The weather, at least, is improving – no snow this weekend and even moments of sunshine!

Fixing the base down onto the blocksFirst up on Saturday, completing the levelling of the base.  Easy enough with the base frame sitting on top to confirm our suspicion that the back corner was ‘down’.  We’d got hold of a bag of sharp sand, so correcting this by lifting the two sides progressively was pretty straight forward.

Then, after placing the base as square as we could on top of the blocks, we marked the fixing holes, drilled these out with a hand drill, and then after placing rawlplugs, screwed the greenhouse frame down into place.  (Hint – mark carefully, and then *check* – it’s annoying when the holes aren’t quite in the right place!)  Skip any holes which are really close to an edge, as the block will just crumble away. Note that we’ve used no mortar at all in constructing this base.  You could, of course, if you wanted a more permanent foundation.

Out of the ground at lastThe sun was thinking about coming out, and we were ready, finally, to get the greenhouse build out of the ground.  The construction guide is purely pictorial, and weighing in at 51 pictographic pages, is something out of a flat-pack-furniture-phobe’s screaming nightmare. In the end, it’s just a question of following the instructions, as carefully as you can.

Our greenhouse was manufactured by ‘Palram’ and is a ‘crystal clear’ (read vaccuum-formed, single-ply) polycarbonate glazed aluminium framed greenhouse.  We bought it via B&Q but their greenhouses are stocked by lots of different retailers.  We’d built a tiny (6ft x 4ft) polycarbonate and aluminium greenhouse in our previous townhouse garden, and I was expecting the same, two-ply corrugated polycarbonate glazing that we’d had before, and which we were very pleased with.  I can only surmise that the insulation properties of this single-ply material won’t be as impressive as the other option.  And handling the glazing panels, which seemed alarmingly lightweight, was a bit hairy in places.  That said, once complete, the finished greenhouse does seem reassuringly ‘solid’. So, time will tell!

Side panels installedBut, back to the build.  Proceed carefully according to your pictograms.  Those on the cover informed me two people would be required, and that was certainly the case – at various times this build would have been completely impossible to perform single-handed. I was expecting to assemble the four walls individually and then combine them, but this wasn’t the case – the whole thing came vertically out of the base, acquiring glazing as it went, and then the build continued up into the gables and finally onto the roof.

We made one mistake (repeated at all four corners), which gave us some trouble until we noticed what we’d done wrong – fortunately our efforts at mitigation only involved some very slight trimming of some edges of the polycarbonate panels, nothing with any lasting consequences. Hint – if there’s more than one possible hole you could screw in, check, and check again before committing (and stop that giggling at the back!).

I gave a few small blood sacrifices on the sharp metal edges of the frame while threading the glazing panels.  The instructions tell you to wear gloves, of course, but it’s impossible to do this while fiddling with the 120 pairs of small metal nuts and bolts that hold this monstrous Meccano set together, and in the end I gave up, and suffered the consequences.  Overall we felt that, at least where it came to the glazing panels, the manufacturing tolerances were probably wider than the assembly ones, which made things a bit tricky from time to time.

Greenhouse roof installedGetting the roof apex installed did require a ladder (at least for us – though we’re both a little on the short side!), which isn’t on the list of required equipment.  It would have been a bit of a nuisance if we hadn’t had one conveniently available!  With the sun setting, and the roof on – missing only the final fitting of the window vent, and the door – and after seven hours solid work, we gave up and went to the pub for a well-earned steak dinner and a couple of pints of rather nice Ringwood bitter.

This morning, after a more sedate Sunday breakfast, we got on with the finishing-up tasks. The window went in quite straightforwardly.  The door was a bit fiddlier but posed no major challenges (and is very thoughtfully designed, in fact). By lunchtime, we had a completed greenhouse frame and glazing.

Hubby had work to do this afternoon, so after a whistle-stop trip to Wickes, he got on with that while I cracked on with the inside of the greenhouse.  I was hoping, rather ambitiously, to finish this evening with the hard-standing for the staging installed, as well as a paving slab path, the staging fitted, and the borders initially dug-over with a ceremonial planting – perhaps a row of early carrots, or something – completed.

Laying the slabsLevelling the ground and installing the slabs was probably, in fairness, a good worked example of why you shouldn’t let amateurs do hard-landscaping!  The soil at the back of the greenhouse, where the staging was going, produced a rich vein of solid clay, the kind that would probably have made a victorian brick-maker’s month.  Again, we wanted to avoid concrete or mortar, so the paving slabs are to be laid directly onto a layer of landscape fabric on top of the soil, using some ‘pads’ of sharp sand to help level them.

Hard standing installedThere are gaps between my slabs, which I’ll fill with some gravel once I’ve remembered to buy a bag.  Eight blocks across the back of the greenhouse provide a space for some shelving, and then a five-block path runs between the two greenhouse borders from the door.  I’m hoping that the slabs will also provide some useful heat-sink effect to hold warmth into the evenings as the temperature drops.

It’s around this stage in the process, when you’re raking the soil under the pathway to a fine tilth, while treading your precious borders harder and harder, that you remember that gardening is about pretty flowers in the same way that house-building is about paint colours for the hall.  In the end, it’s mostly hard labour!

Greenhouse staging 'installed'Just as I was ready to give myself a big pat on the back and congratulate myself on a job well done, I realised I had a small problem with my (great, cheap!) greenhouse staging.  The pack, describing itself as 2ft 11in (x2) greenhouse shelving (and I’d measured the gap!!) turned out to have the ‘aprox’ behaviour in the, compulsory, unhelpful direction.  They don’t fit!  Until I decide whether I want to take a hacksaw to eight lengths of steel tubing, they’re installed at a rather ‘jaunty’ angle…

No ceremonial carrots, but three big pots of compost with my newly-arrived hop rhizomes in them, pending the preparation of their final planting site.  There’ll also be a water butt to collect the run-off from the roof and reduce the distance I have to walk to fill the watering can.

Completed greenhouse

I think we’re both, it’s fair to say, seriously pleased with our efforts, even though it’s been physically very demanding and taken about twice as long as we had imagined it would.

To finish, and following Ross’s example in his excellent barn door guest blog post, some summaries:

Costings –

  • Greenhouse kit, including base & glazing – ~£350
  • Breezeblocks – £32
  • Paving slabs – £32
  • Sharp sand – £1.81
  • Landscape fabric – can’t remember, it was in the back of the shed

Time invested –

  • Ground clearance ~1 day, two people (or a bit longer for one)
  • Installing breeze-blocks ~1 day, two people
  • Greenhouse build ~ 1 day, two people (if you get up sharpish or have more hours of light than we did!) allowing extra if you want to do silly things with paving slabs inside.

Lessons learnt –

  • Measure, then measure again. Then have someone else measure too.  Don’t trust the measurements on packets, especially when they may be ‘metric’ feet-and-inches!
  • Wear gloves, unless you want to discover quite how sharp the sliced edges of extruded aluminium components can be.
  • Consider the weather forecast.  It can be really *really* cold in February! And finally,
  • If there is more than one possible hole… insert your own joke here.

I can’t wait to really get growing!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

Built Like A Barn Door – or, how to make your own shed doors [Guest Blogger]

Lemon TreeOur Guest Blogger is Ross, from Christchurch, NZ.  

You may recall the lovely series of lemon-glut busting recipes which Ross has shared with the blog.  As well as all that preserving, he’s been doing some DIY lately – and I was so impressed by this new shed door that I rather cheekily asked him for a write-up!

So, as they say, now for something completely different! But something which is still undoubtedly a very useful country skill – woodwork.

Scenario

We have a shed. It’s timber-framed, and until recently it was clad with asbestos boards. We got some professionals in to remove and dispose of it properly, and then had a local builder come and reclad the shed in plywood. So far so good, but his quote didn’t include reinstating the door – which, to be fair, was old, rotting, and had a sliding track which was ruined when the asbestos guys ripped it off.

Shed, doorlessWhat to do?

The aperture was 190-191cm high and 140-141cm wide. (Yes, the edges are not parallel; what do you expect?) An unusual size, and if I did get a door made to fit that, I’d also have to shell out for delivery as it wouldn’t fit in the car. Such a wide door would have quite a large swing, which could be a bother.

I got some door designs from various DIY books and websites. The traditional basic ledged-and-braced door design – described as having a “rustic” feel – would certainly work for us. In short, you lay out some planks side-by-side, then nail or screw two horizontals and a diagonal to keep them together, and there’s your door.

Single door panelI don’t have a good picture of the design that doesn’t infringe somebody else’s copyright, but – skipping ahead a bit – here’s what one of ours looks like.

I rapidly came to the idea of a double door to reduce the swing size. But if I made a pair of ledged and braced doors, I’d still have the same problem getting the parts home from our local DIY barn as the wood would be too long to fit in the car.

There was a bit of head-scratching, and a few minutes more spent getting the splinters out from under my fingernails, before I realised what I could do. Stable doors. That is to say, a pair of doors with the ability to swing independently but which fill the frame vertically.

So, to deal with the swing issue as well, I’d make a double stable door. That is to say, four doorlets to fill the space. What could possibly go wrong? I should point out that, between my partner and I, we have limited tools, skill and experience. We have an electric drill and a Workmate, and know what end of a hammer to hold (beginners please note, not the metal end), but New Yankee Workshop this ain’t…

Design

door drawingHere’s the design. H for hinge, S for a door-stop, and the brown rectangles are tower bolts.

If you compare it with other ledge and brace doors, you’ll notice this is a modified design. Traditionally the ledges would both be a little distance in from the top and bottom of each door. Here I have moved the central ledges nearly flush to the edge, for convenience in bolting them together. (I still needed to be able to bolt one side at the top and bottom, but I figured I would use off-cuts to extend the ledges where I needed to. You probably don’t want both ledges to be flush with the edges in case you need to shrink the doors later.)

So I spent a good while in Mitre 10 figuring out which of their available pre-cut timber widths would give me a reasonably convenient time of assembling it all. (I had hoped to find tongue and groove, but they don’t keep any. That was OK as their regular boards are uniform enough; some are a bit warpy but not too bad.)

It broke down like this:

  • Right side: 7x 13.5cm x 9mm boards per door
  • Left side: 2x 23cm x 9mm boards per door
  • Bottom half: Boards to be 1.2m long, uncut
  • Top half: The same 1.2m boards, to be initially cut a few cm too long, then later cut to fit precisely.
  • Ledges (horizontals): Cut to same width as their respective doorlets. I realised later they need to be a little smaller to allow for the swing of the door.
  • Braces (diagonals): Pythagoras tells us that these are going to be longer than the verticals or the horizontals. As they’re blocks with a non-zero width the length will be slightly longer than by Pythagoras, but it worked out within about 1%.

You may notice that (7 x 13.5cm) + (2 x 23cm) comes to 140.5cm, for an aperture that varies between 140 and 141cm in width. This would prove to be annoying later.

Assembling each doorlet

Assembling the doorletLay out your panels side by side. Use a spare block of wood to square up the ends. (For the 7-panel doorlets I did this in two stages, four boards then three, as my working area wasn’t quite wide enough.)

Clamp the ledges into place. I also used a sash clamp to hold the planks together laterally; I don’t know whether this was essential but I suspect I’d have needed more G-clamps if I hadn’t.

Then pin the ledges to the planks. You can do this with nails but I used screws (drilling pilot holes first, of course). I attached each end of the ledge to its corresponding board with three screws, then put one screw into each intermediate board; the same for the other ledge. This may have been overkill.

Next cut and attach the braces. We just marked these with a pencil and steel rule, then sawed as close as we could to the line (fixing up later). The braces have to fit well as they spread the weight of the door. I fixed each ledge with two screws into each end board and one into each intermediate. On reflection this was definitely overkill.

Then paint, varnish, or apply whatever decoration you wish. For efficiency we painted only the outward faces at this point (we have still to paint the shed exterior, after all) – in a less clement climate you might be well advised to paint all of it before hanging to try and prevent damp getting in and warping the wood to next week and back again.

The hinge conundrum

I had read in my DIY book that a tee-hinge was “traditional” for this sort of design of door, so I bought some without thinking much about it. Mistake! For an outward-opening door, it was only going to be possible to put these on the outside of the door, with the screws exposed to all comers: no good for security. (Thank you, Mitre 10 returns policy…!)

I replaced them with some ordinary door hinges, of the kind that doesn’t require you to cut a rebate into the frame.

It’s important to think about where the hinges will attach to, on both the door and the frame. You can’t put screws into the end-grain of a block of wood and expect them to hold. Similarly, putting them into the side of the plywood cladding would have been hopeless. These were going to have to go into a door frame, the shed’s timber framing, or something securely attached thereto.

Shed frameOn one side I had the timber stud. No worries – just have to chisel away a small section of the plywood edge so I could attach the hinges properly into the stud and not foul their pins.

Existing shed constructionOn the other side things were a bit more interesting. There’s no frame to be seen – just the edges of the interior wooden cladding, and a bit raggedy at that.

Adding part-frameTurns out the frame is just behind, so I bought a couple more boards to act as a part-frame, which I attached with long screws through the inner cladding and into the frame.

Hanging the doors

Finally, it was time to hang the doors. You can hang a single door yourself, but it’s a bit troublesome and involves a couple of wedges; much easier with a spare pair of hands. (Sadly, I didn’t have a third pair of hands to photograph this process.)

I started out with the lower two doorlets. Obviously, the bottom doors don’t go all the way down to the deck; you want them to sit slightly off the ground (one source I read said 6mm) for clearance over any debris that may lurk. First fit the hinges (remembering not to put screws into the end grain of a ledge); then put the door into its open position, jacked off the ground; mark the positions of the holes, drill your pilots, then screw it into place.

Except, if you’re me, at some point in this process you think “hey, if I cut rebates for the hinges on that side, even if they don’t need it, I’ll save the couple of mm that will mean I don’t have to trim the doors.” Mistake! I’ve never cut rebates before, and they were distinctly less than even. Worse, the rebates I cut were sufficiently deep that when closing the doorlets fully the pressure tried to rip the hinges off! I ended up packing the hinges with cardboard and crossing my fingers. This may yet come back to bite me, but at least it’s “only” a matter of turning the fake-frames over and rehanging two of the doors, right…?

Offering up the second (larger) door it was clear I was going to have to trim a few mm off the edge for it to fit. On hanging it I found I had somehow managed to give them a 6mm height differential. I wasn’t worried; they swung well, and it’s not surprising as the ground isn’t flat, but if only I had realised this first and hung one to match the other…

Bottom doorlets installedBy now it was getting late. I had bought four heavy-duty tower bolts for securing the doors to each other and the frame, so I used one of them to keep the doors from swinging freely, then called it a night.

Fitting the upper two doors was very much like the lower two, but less close to the ground. We offered each up in turn and trimmed them to fit vertically, as planned.

On closing them for the first time (one at a time), one of the ledges prevented the other door from closing, so we cut a bevel into it. Then the doors fitted!… just. Very very tight, not really usable, so we spent a few minutes hand-sanding the mating edges down. It’s just about usable. I am reticent to take more off yet until the doors have hung for a couple of weeks as they may settle, changing their shape subtly.

Door furniture

All doorlets with boltMy plan for using the door was to treat the whole thing as a double door most of the time. I fitted a tower bolt across each vertical pair to keep them together; this is why I put the central ledges where they are.

Most of the time we won’t need the full width of the door so will only open the larger half. I fitted a tower bolt vertically at the top and bottom half of the smaller pair to secure them. (I added a couple of off-cuts in the corners, butting up to the ledges, so I could attach the bolts with the same deep screws I had been using on the rest of the door. The shed sits on a concrete slab, so making a hole for the bottom bolt to drop into required a couple of minutes with a big masonry bit.)

Inside view, bolts installedThe door is secured by a hasp, staple and padlock across the top pair. I may fit a further tower bolt inside the bottom pair so we can have it held fast while the top pair are open stable-style.

A couple of door stops (not yet fitted at the time of writing) will complete the security, preventing the larger half of the door from being forced inwards when the shed is unattended.

Next steps

After the doors have had time to settle (a few weeks) I will have a good look at them and see if I need to adjust or re-trim anything. I suspect I will want to plane a few mm horizontally off the upper doors where they stick. You can see they don’t sit perfectly; can I claim some sort of amateur’s privilege?

Finished, doors closed

If you have a big gap between double doors you might want to fit an astragal. I may yet fit one on ours – depends how much I remove after it has had time to settle.

Materials and costings

[The costings won’t be of too much use if you’re not in NZ, but they give you an idea. At the time of writing the exchange rate is about NZ$1.90 to £1.]

  • Materials cost: $384.08  – of which $233 was wood, $97 door furniture, $44 paint.
  • Consumables: Sandpaper and sanding block; several dozen screws.
  • Tools used: hammer, wood chisels, electric drill (several different wood bits, a countersink, and a big masonry bit I bought specially so the bottom bolt could drop into the floor), screwdriver bits for the drill (a big sanity saver!), hand plane, G-clamps, 1.2m sash clamp (bought specially for this project; $48.15). Black & Decker Workmate.
  • Time taken: The lion’s share of three days, including trips to the DIY shop. A little more time will be needed after the doors have had time to settle.
  • Labour cost: zero!

The satisfaction of doing it ourselves: *Priceless!*

Lessons learned:

Think through your design. No, really. Don’t assume that hinges will be so inconsequential as to not require thought.

Mortising rebates is hard – or, at least, I don’t have the knack. Beware, it’s very easy to cut too much, which you can’t easily undo.

If you buy hinges that don’t require to be rebated, don’t cut rebates for them!

Remember that the door swings. A thick door, or one thickened by ledges and other attachments flush with the edge, is harder to swing than a thin one.

When hanging a pair of doors that you can see the tops of (e.g. a double stable door like this project), you might want to try and make sure the tops are level.

Ross is an expat thirtysomething Brit who went to the Shakey Isles in search of adventure. Works in technology, enjoys creating, has a love-hate relationship with his kitchen.

Thanks, Ross, for this great DIY tutorial!

It’s been so much fun having these guest blog posts from Ross – and they seem to have been appreciated, too!  So if any readers out there have favourite ‘country skills’ they’d like to share with the blog – particularly if, like Ross, you live on the other side of the world, or have great ‘urban’ country skills – then drop me a line on kate@countryskillsblog.com and we can have a chat!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

When Life Gives You Lemons – Part 5: sweet lemon pickle [Guest Blogger]

Lemon TreeOur Guest Blogger is Ross, from Christchurch, NZ.  

You may recall the lovely series of lemon-glut busting recipes which Ross shared with us back in November last year.  He’s back today, with another lovely lemon preserve.  He says of this one “This recipe is a keeper! Much, much nicer than the hot oily one.”

Sweet lemon (or lime) pickle

The hot lemon pickle recipe is, well, hot. Great if that’s what you’re looking for, but sometimes you want something sweeter, less oily and less incendiary. This pickle is easier to make, too.

Prep time: 20 mins
Maturing time: 3-4 weeks

This makes somewhere over 1kg of pickle (I didn’t think to weigh it).

  • About 500g of lemons. (Or limes. Confusingly, the two words seem to often be used interchangeably in Indian English. I haven’t tried this recipe with limes but I expect it’ll be just as great.)
  • 100g salt
  • 500g white sugar
  • 250g demerara sugar (Note: Some recipes call for grated jaggery. If you can get hold of some, great!)
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 1 tbsp chilli powder of your desired heat

This recipe is almost entirely jar-based. You need space to throw the salt and sugar around, so it’s back to our old friend the large kilner jar – sterilised, of course.

Wash and dry the fruit. As usual, make sure you’ve removed any wax.

Squeeze a few fruits until you’ve collected about 125ml (1/2 cup) of juice. Keep the skins!

Cut the skins, and the remaining whole fruit, into pieces that are the right sort of size that you want to find in your pickle. This might be eighths or quarters, depending on your taste and the size of the fruit. Put all the chopped pieces into the jar.

Mix the juice, salt and turmeric, pour it over the fruit.

Compress the fruit in the jar so that it’s all covered by liquid.

When you add the sugar, it sinks.Put the lid on and leave the jar in a warm sunny place. While it’s ‘cooking’, give the mixture a good shake-up every couple of days. You’re waiting until the fruit has softened; expect this to take about a week and a half, longer if it’s cold.

Throw in the sugar and mix well.

Put the jar in a safe place (doesn’t have to be sunny this time) for another week and a half or so. The sugar sinks, so give it a good stir every couple of days. Before adding the chilli.When most or all of the sugar has dissolved, it’s ready. I found three distinct layers – floating lemon pieces, the denser sugary syrup, and the undissolved sugar.

After adding the chilliFinally, add the chilli powder and stir well.

It’s now ready to bottle and/or eat immediately. If you bottle it later, be sure to stir well as the fruit tends to rise in the sugary mixture.

No need to refrigerate. Apparently it keeps for over a year if you leave it in a cool dry place – but it’s so yummy, I’m not sure it’ll be around that long!

The finished product

Afterword:

I’ll be making more of this, it’s awesome with poppadoms or as a side with a curry.

You could probably try this recipe to good effect with other citrus fruit, but the combination of the sour lemons and sugar really works well on the taste buds.

Ross is an expat thirtysomething Brit who went to the Shakey Isles in search of adventure. Works in technology, enjoys creating, has a love-hate relationship with his kitchen.

If you’ve enjoyed this recipe, have a look at Ross’s other lemon glut-busting recipes for lemonadelemon liqueur, and lemon sorbet (which you might be needing, if you decide to experiment the hot pickle!).

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

Brilliant Bangers – in praise of the full English breakfast

Those of you who come here regularly will know this isn’t the sort of food blog (if it’s even a food blog, really?) where I regularly post photos of my meals.  This time, though, I’m making an exception.

This was my Sunday breakfast –

Full English breakfast

What’s so special about that, you might wonder?  Well, everything on that plate was made here, by us.  I’m not going to claim to have grown the mushrooms or the tomato, or churned the butter, but the bacon was home-cured and smoked, the bread was my own sourdough, the eggs were laid in the garden by our hens, and, most excitingly for me, the sausages were made here, in my very own kitchen.  Even the ketchup is homemade.

This blog started with bacon, over a year ago, and curing and smoking have been among the recurring themes as the months have gone by.  The trouble with sausages is that they’re so often so disappointing, so much less than they ought to be, a disposal route for otherwise less than tempting ingredients and fillers.  Of course, the more lovely the rest of your breakfast – the fresher and richer your eggs, the tastier your home-cured bacon – the more obvious the deficiencies of your bangers become.

The Porkert PP88I’ve wanted to make sausages for a very long time – so long, in fact, that we received a sausage press (the rather wonderful chromed cast-iron, sparsely named Czech ‘Porkert PP88’) as a wedding gift over six years ago.  I regret that, until last weekend, it hadn’t yet managed to have an outing!  I finally decided that enough was enough, and ordered some sausage skins from Weschenfelder, which arrived very promptly last week.  A trip to our friendly local farm shop butcher provided us with 1kg of minced pork shoulder, and we were ready to rock!

Sausage mixTo the kilo of minced pork, we added a bit short of the recommended 200g of breadcrumbs (I didn’t have enough – they were a mix anyway of shop-bought breadcrumbs I had in the cupboard, and a couple of slices of dried and crushed homemade sourdough), 200ml of water (this, along with the breadcrumb, is essential for getting the mix to a consistency where it will pass through the sausage press), a teaspoon of salt and a half a teaspoon of crushed black pepper.

Soaking sausage casingsThe sausage skins were already soaking in warm water – we had bought the ready spooled sheep’s casing as Hubby’s preference runs to smaller bangers.  Sausage skins are not pleasant smelling things!  So, don’t sniff them, would be my advice.  A lot of the odour disappears once they’ve been soaked, so I’d recommend trying not to think about it too much in the meantime!

Ours probably hadn’t been soaked for as long as they ought to, since when I loaded the first length, they were very tricky to feed onto the nozzle of the sausage stuffer – I put it down to inexperience, but the second length, which had had about half an hour longer to soak, went on much more easily.  As they can soak for 12 hours or so without harm, get started with the soaking early!

Feed your skins onto the nozzleOK, so there’s no polite way of saying this – there’s something unavoidably prepucial about sausage skins!  Feed your skins onto the nozzle of the sausage stuffer (ours were quite a snug fit on the 20mm nozzle), leaving a couple of inches, untied, dangling free from the tip.  And try not to contemplate the resemblance to condoms too closely!

Don’t overfill your sausage stuffing press, especially if it’s manually powered like ours!  Add a couple of hand-fulls to the barrel and start to push down steadily.  We discovered around this time that we didn’t have the mechanical advantage at counter height to operate the lever usefully, and moved the whole sausage pressing rig down onto the kitchen floor. Really, we should have had mounting bolts to allow us to seat the press firmly in position, but we had to make do without.  Something to add to my ‘fantasy kitchen’ wish-list, I guess!

Filling sausagesPut a nice shallow tray (a baking sheet is ideal) under the sausage press to catch the sausages as they’re filled.  Once you get the sausage meat flowing, you want to kind of let it fill the casing and pull it off the nozzle itself as it goes.  This is definitely a two man job with any kind of manual press, I’m afraid!  Don’t pull the skin away from the nozzle unless it seems to be getting stuck, but equally don’t let the skin be over-filled, as you’re going to need a bit of ‘freedom’ when you come to twist and link the sausages.

The skins will split in places – you might have weakened them when you were incompetently loading them! – but don’t worry, it’s not a disaster. Carry on until you run out of sausage meat, or skins!

Linked sausagesNow it’s time to link your sausages.  I looked at various diagrams and instructions in books and on the web, but in the end I just fiddled with them until they did what I wanted – one of these days I’ll try to take photos but it never made much sense to me at the time!  Still, by the end of the process I had two strings of traditionally linked sausages.  The first  – on the left – are noticeably ‘scrappier’ than the second, but I’m really thrilled with all of them.

It’s advised to hang them to dry for a while – the cabinet doors were useful here – and then let them rest overnight before eating them.  We refrigerated one breakfast’s worth and put the rest in the freezer.

They’re great sausages.  They cooked well under the grill, but I’ll admit the first mouthful was almost underwhelming, I worried they were bland but then realised that they were, by any commercial standard, just seriously ‘under-seasonned’ compared to what my taste-buds were expecting.  I have to say I’m now rather worried about how much salt must be in shop-bought bangers!  But on the second bite, the lovely sweet pork flavour came through beautifully.  I’m looking forward to experimenting with some herbs, spices, and other flavours in future batches – we intentionally kept this batch quite plain as a ‘baseline’!

Finished sausages

So, homemade sausages – the last part of the Holy Trinity of the great Full English breakfast of sausage, bacon and eggs.  Go on, try it!  And no doubt, there will be more sausage making posts in the future!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

When Life Gives You Lemons – Part 4: lemon pickle [Guest Blogger]

Today’s Guest Blogger is Ross, from Christchurch, NZ.

Lemon pickle

This one is a bit friskier, with the smoking hot oil making the kitchen smell strongly of mustard for a while – you have been warned!

This made about 1kg of pickle for me (including some excess oil).

  • 8 lemons,
  • 150g salt,
  • 25g fenugreek; 25g mustard powder; 50g chilli powder; 8g turmeric. (I used mild chilli powder from my local Indian supermarket, and the end product still had a bit of a kick; if you prefer it incendiary, then use the hot stuff.)
  • 300ml mustard oil; 1/2 tsp asafoetida (hing); 12g mustard seeds (crushed).

Salted lemonsStart by sterilising a large glass jar – a kilner-type jar like the one pictured is ideal.

Wash the lemons, dry, cut into eighths; you don’t have to remove the pips, but I did.

Put the lemons in the jar. Add the salt and shake it all up well to spread it all over them.

Lemons, after saltingCover; leave in a warm place for 1-2 weeks. (I put it on the windowsill which catches the sun nicely.) The juice leeches out of the lemons; where they’re exposed to the air, the lemon pieces soften and go a dull brown colour.

Mix the fenugreek, mustard powder, chilli powder and turmeric. Add this to the jar and shake it around gently. Re-cover and put it back into the warm for 2-3 days.

With all the spicesTransfer the lemon pieces and spices to a large saucepan.

Heat the mustard oil in a large frying pan. Fry the mustard seeds and asafoetida.

Keep heating the oil until it starts to smoke, then pour it over the lemons. (This is where it gets a bit frisky.)

Mix well. Allow to cool, transfer to a bowl, cover once more and leave in the warm for another week or so.

Lemon pickle

Now it is ready to put into jars; I tried (without huge success) to decant the excess oil. Then you can give some to your friends as presents, or to your enemies as a chemical weapon…

Ross is an expat thirtysomething Brit who went to the Shakey Isles in search of adventure. Works in technology, enjoys creating, has a love-hate relationship with his kitchen.

Warm thanks go out to Ross for these four great blog posts – hopefully he’ll be back with some more antipodean country skills for the blog in the future!  Have a look at Ross’s other lemon glut-busting recipes for lemonade and lemon liqueur, and lemon sorbet (which you’ll be needing, after sampling this pickle, I think!).

I hope you’ve all enjoyed this contribution from a great guest blogger as much as I have!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>