Category Archives: Food

April Diary 2017

It’s been an early, dry Spring in most of England this year. Here in our southwest corner, the rhubarb is thin and the potatoes slow to come up. On the positive side, the slugs are discouraged and the seedlings are getting a good start. Watering them is a daily chore now.

Well watered rhubarb in a pot
Well watered rhubarb in a pot

Having failed to negotiate a supply of wheat seeds – it’s hard to buy a small handful – I planted some old gleanings I found in the seed box. They seem to be coming up, but look exactly like grass just now. If the experiment doesn’t work, I’ll dig over and plant out squashes, or grow a catch crop of cress.

We managed to subdue most of the really wild quarter of our new Resilience Allotment while the soil was still soft. To clear the established perennial weeds – couch grass, bindweed, dandelion and horsetail – we turned the matted turf over to a spade’s depth, pulling the exposed roots out by hand as we broke up the clumps. These went to the tip for recycling, as they can sprout again from fragments.

The rough bit of the allotment before digging
The rough bit is on the left
The weed roots we are removing
The weed roots we are removing

A layer of leaf mould covered with cardboard sheets was laid on the sections we dug over, topped with another layer of leaf mould. Holes were cut in the card and our vegetables planted through it, in a handful of compost. The thick mulch will discourage the weeds – though we haven’t seen the last of them – and give our plants a head start.

The leaf mould was free, from a huge pile dumped in the allotment car park. It’s not ideal; in this dry weather it starts to blow away, and I worry that the potatoes may not like it.

“Do not dig your potatoes up to see if they are growing” – a modern Zen saying!

There was an urgent need for a weed suppressant though, and the leaf mould was available in large amounts. Resilience gardening is about making use of local resources, in a very permaculture-like fashion.

It’s also about low maintenance. While I’m concentrating on the allotment, the original Resilience Garden is ticking over nicely. The leeks and purple sprouting broccoli are finishing now, the kale going to seed, and the new peas coming up. The wild garlic is getting a bit ragged, but other salad leaves are coming up fast. The remaining small piece of lawn takes me more effort to maintain than the vegetable patch does.

You can learn the basics of starting a Resilience Garden from the Handbook...the best way to learn is to try things out. Even a windowsill pot of herbs is worth doing!

Musing on the process of writing

When I returned from my trip to Hebden Bridge I pitched straight into completing the first full draft of my new book, on food resilience. I’ve been working on this book for some years, piecing the content together from field trips, networking events and out-takes from the Resilience Handbook. Cultivating my own resilience garden supplied me with the vegetables’ point of view!

I’ve been living on experiments for months, as I calculate exact quantities for recipes I’ve used for decades without measuring. Food resilience combines rotating your emergency stores with whatever you can forage – your own produce, special deals, community orchard fruit. This has kept me so busy that I just don’t use the supermarket any more, except to replenish heavy items in my stores.

home made marmalade jars
You can’t make just a little marmalade!

I find I become quite obsessive at this stage of writing. Once I get past 40,000 words, I encounter continuity issues, even with non-fiction. Did I write on that subject in a previous chapter? Or did I just pencil in some notes? Finally weaving all the threads of a book into a single narrative requires intense concentration on my part.

turkish style rug on a frame loom
The knotted rug pictured in ‘Diary, September 2014’ finally completed this winter

As I rewrote the ‘Table of Contents’ ready to create a master document, and reach my personal milestone – the first word count of a full manuscript – I had that indefinable feeling that it was finished. There’s still a lot of work to do – chapters to revise, recipes to refine – but the book suddenly felt whole. I can take the scaffolding away; it’ll stand up on its own!

After over a month of relentless concentration, I can relax back into my normal writing regime. The book still requires work, but not to the exclusion of all else. Spring is coming, the new Resilience Allotment is prepared for planting, new adventures await!

The Resilience Allotment
The Resilience Allotment

 

Apologies to my followers for the long hiatus! I do appreciate you, and the whole blogging community. I learn marvellous things from these windows you open into other places and lifestyles – I hope I’m giving you food for thought.

The links on this site are selected to provide stepping stones to further knowledge. Inform yourselves through many sources, and fake news will stand out like the wrong piece in a jigsaw puzzle.

February Diary 2017

It’s been a busy year so far! The astrologers say there may be a short respite in early autumn, but otherwise things promise to be relentlessly hectic.

I’ve set aside the time from January to April to finish my book about food resilience. It’s based around the seasons; it became quite disorientating, writing about the warmth of May when it was January outside.

I took a break, wrote an essay for the Nine Dots Prize then went up North on a brief networking mission. I stayed at the splendid Hebden Bridge hostel – used as a refugee centre during the 2015 floods – and spent a day in nearby Todmorden.

The Incredible Aquagarden was running a course that day, which was lucky. I caught the morning session, on soil science. It was interesting to compare the teaching styles with those of our local Feed Avalon organisation.

The Incredible Aquagarden from the outside
The Incredible Aquagarden from the outside

I met up with Estelle Brown from Incredible Edible Todmorden at lunchtime for a quick tour of their edible landmarks. The medicinal herb beds beside the canal had survived inundation, though nearby buildings had suffered badly. Pollinators’ Avenue, originally a temporary installation, was still going. The locals were fending off a planned retail centre on the site, having a perfectly good market next door.

A new mural in Todmorden
A new mural in Todmorden
the iconic police station vegetable beds, Todmorden
the iconic police station vegetable beds, Todmorden
People hang old teapots in trees to encourage robins to nest; the boat on the canal is just strange
People hang old teapots in trees to encourage robins to nest; the boat on the canal is just strange
Pollinators' Avenue
Pollinators’ Avenue

Although it was chilly and getting dark, I trekked back through the amazing park to the Aquagarden for the last part of their course. This dealt with aquaponics itself; I was able to thoroughly explore the process by viewing their demonstration equipment, complete with pet fish. This aquagarden is evolving into an educational centre, unlike the one at Mark, in Somerset, which is a commercial operation.

The fish tank and vegetable bed in the Todmorden aquagarden
The fish tank and vegetable bed in the Todmorden aquagarden
Spring courses at the Incredible Aquagarden
Spring courses at the Incredible Aquagarden

At the end, I was presented with a set of hydroponic pots to take home – and, fortunately, a lift to the railway station. You’ve no idea what a novelty local trains are to someone from Mid-Somerset!

There was some time the next day to visit Hebden Bridge before we left. The Bookcase is open again – you can buy the Resilience Handbook there now! The comic book store is back too, though there is still a scattering of boarded windows in the main street. The water level overtopped defences based on previous floods by several feet.

At the old mill, the Archimedes screw survived, though it was a near thing. Everyone had flood stories, but the millkeeper’s tale highlighted an unforeseen hazard. Tree branches caught on a bridge just upstream, creating a dam which suddenly burst, hurling a tidal wave at their mill house. Only the window glass held back this surge; fortunately it wasn’t broken by the debris. Riverside properties in similar situations could consider adding metal grids to their flood protection strategies.

Archimedes screw
The Archimedes screw generates all the electricity for the mill building. You can see some heat exchange pipes in the water at the right of this picture, which provide some of the heating. 75% of the energy harvested at the mill is resold to the Grid.

Back to Somerset, night driving in the rain through relentless traffic. It was worse than my last visit; yet more housing was planned in the area. Is there some kind of crazy motorway Jenga going on – a game to see how much traffic you can pile into a system before it collapses?

And so back to the writing desk…an icy rain sweeps the garden as I imagine the chore of watering plants in hot summer sunshine, whilst browsing on fresh raspberries…

Worried about  global uncertainty?  Buy yourself a Resilience Handbook and start learning the power of community resilience!  We need informed debates centred  around practical, ground level solutions.

Growing for Resilience

Now that the children have left for university and city life, the simplicity of the resilience kitchen shows through. I’ve been exploring this concept in depth recently, researching for my next book.

I’m exploring food resilience in a rapidly urbanising area. If the global food transport network became subject to frequent disruption, you might have to live on stored food supplemented by what you could grow within walking distance. Local farmers and growers would become an important part of your landscape again, in between the arrivals of imported foods at the declining supermarkets.

The erratic income of an author is well suited to such experiments. My colleague, Linda Benfield, and I acquired an allotment this year, in addition to our gardens. With the extra land, we’re quite well off for fresh vegetables now. Next season, we plan to grow wheat and tobacco!

We’re not small holders. We depend on local farms – we still have a few – for milk, eggs and meat. Potatoes, grains, sugar and spices come from the food co-operative; other supplies from the cash and carry. We can’t provide everything for our households from two gardens and an allotment, but we’re learning what else we need. A lifestyle more in tune with the unfolding seasons, more importance given to locally based food suppliers, more gardeners!

We’re resilience gardeners, cultivating survival skills, and every little helps!

potatos-in-tyre1

Buy the Resilience Handbook and support this project! Overseas customers will need to contact me directly, or buy through their local Amazon (sorry, it won’t be signed). Please let me know if you do, and leave a review if you enjoyed the book.

Happy Resilient New Year!

Resilience in Iceland

My trip to Iceland was a journey through the island’s past. I was well acquainted with the Sagas, set in the period just after Settlement, from about 900 to 1050 AD, which described a prosperous landscape. I knew that deforestation quickly became a problem and Icelanders avoided the fate of their relatives in Greenland by a very small margin.*

One of my first stops was the Settlement Exhibition in Reykjavik. This museum has been built over an excavated longhouse from the Saga days. Its inhabitants enjoyed Iron Age luxury in their spacious ‘hvoll’ surrounded by natural abundance.

Following the prosperity of the early days came the Little Ice Age which began in the 1300s and lasted nearly six centuries. The trees cut for firewood, building and smelting iron didn’t grow back. The topsoil was lost and barley cultivation ceased. The fjords filled with ice; the fishing boats rotted on the strand with no wood for repairs.

There wasn’t even enough firewood to boil seawater for salt, essential for preserving food through the long winters. Luckily cows were able to survive, presumably living on seaweed and lichens like the people, and there was plenty of whey left over from butter making. The Icelanders expanded traditional techniques of preserving meat in lactic acid.

There was no clay for making pots, no iron to repair pans. People used the volcanic springs to steam food wrapped in cloth, dug pits in hot sand. Icelandic cuisine became desperately inventive.

The climate change was compounded by hostile political conditions and by the Black Death in 1402. The population fell from 60,000 to 20,000. Then there was the Skaftáreldar eruption in 1783, which poisoned large areas of grassland.

As Europe began to prosper again, there was a market for the fine woollen goods from Iceland – the sheep had survived too, and just as well as there were no fibre crops for cloth or ropes. Finally permitted to prosper from their own trade, the Icelanders invested in boats. Their fishing fleet was revived; technology trickled in from the Industrial Revolution.

Then electricity was invented! Icelanders swiftly caught on to the potential of renewable and volcanic energies. Huge greenhouses now provide all the vegetables they need for domestic consumption, and extensive reforestation is progressing. Recycling is taken seriously. So is trashing the countryside with off road vehicles.

You’ll find a great respect for the land among Icelanders. It nearly killed them. If you visit this paragon of resilience, don’t pretend you know what you’re doing. Hire locals to show you around, especially in winter!

 

*There’s a poignant description of the fate of one group of Greenland Vikings in ‘Collapse’ by Jared Diamond.  This is one of the recommended books in the Resilience Handbook…reading is a good activity in the winter!

There’s still time to order a signed copy of the Resilience Handbook before Xmas – email me after you’ve placed your order if you want it signed to another name!

Potato Scones

Autumn is the prime time for eating potatoes. They’re a good crop for the novice gardener as they’re such a user-friendly vegetable. I got a good yield this year from the tyre stacks; the harvest has kept me supplied since August!  Pick out the blemished or nibbled spuds and eat them first, keeping the good ones in a cool dark place for later.

I always cook more than I need for one meal and use the leftovers next day. Twice baked potatoes, shepherd’s pie or fried potato cakes are my usual recipes of choice, but I thought I’d give potato scones a whirl this time.

You need a griddle to cook them on. This is a thick, flat metal sheet, about the size of a frying pan. It’s a useful piece of kit; people often used griddles to make pan breads over an open fire when we were living off-grid at long events.  You can use them on a gas cooker, but I haven’t tried with an electric ring.  Experiment; I expect it’ll work.

I haven’t got a griddle, so I used the heavy Le Creuset frying pan which is so perfect for pancakes; that worked just fine!   Although their kit is fiendishly expensive, I’ve used this pan constantly for twenty years and it’s probably good for the same again.

This recipe is for eight ounces of mashed potatoes. Weigh your leftovers and adjust the amounts accordingly. Don’t mash butter in if you plan to make these; serve them for the initial meal with the butter dotted on top, or the quantities will be wrong.

8 ounces mashed potato

1 ounce butter

2 ounces self-raising flour

dash of salt

Mix the flour and salt into the mash. Rub in the butter to make a stiff dough. It might seem a bit dry at first, but will soon soften as the butter warms up, so don’t add liquid. Knead this lightly, roll it out to about a centimetre thick on a well-floured board. Cut into triangles and cook for five minutes each side on a hot greased griddle or suitable equivalent.

potato scones recipe

I’d eat these with beans and bacon, but the kids from the Gardening Group preferred to spread them with golden syrup – this was surprisingly tasty, if rather sticky!

potato scones and syrup

This recipe made eight scones at a total cost of thirty pence, using organic locally sourced butter and flour.  Read the Food section of ‘The Resilience Handbook – How to survive in the 21st century’ to get started on low cost living!

I eat from stores, supplemented with my own produce – it’s not even a big garden, nor does it take much effort.  I only venture into supermarkets to stock up on heavy stuff and bargains; I feel almost deprived of retail experience!  However, I’m off to explore Iceland next week thanks to the money I’ve saved, so I can live with it!

Hallowe’en special – Trick or Treat cakes!

Most of these special seasonal fairy cakes have a nice chunk of banana in the centre – but some have vegetables!

You’ll need a baking tray that holds a dozen cupcakes, paper cases and a few precooked vegetables. I used some chunks of baked squash and some broccoli florets lightly cooked until the stems were just going soft. For the rest:-

4 ounces butter

4 ounces sugar

7 ounces self raising flour

1 ounce cocoa powder

2 eggs

a few drops of vanilla essence

a couple of tablespoons of milk

a banana cut into six pieces

some chunks of cooked vegetable about the same size as the banana – I used squash and broccoli, but small Brussel sprouts would be good too!

Turn the oven on to gas mark 5 (190 C; 375 F) to preheat it, make sure there’s shelves just above and below the middle.

Cream the butter and sugar, beat in the eggs and vanilla. Fold in the flour and cocoa, adding a bit of milk if the mixture is too stiff to work easily.

Dollop a small spoonful of mix into each cake case, spreading it to cover the bottom. Lightly press a chunk of banana into half of the cases, and a piece of vegetable into the other six. Carefully cover these fillings with the rest of the mix until they can’t be seen.

Cook on the higher shelf for 20 minutes, then move to the lower middle shelf for another 5 – 10 minutes till the cake tops are firm. There’s extra moisture in the fillings, so they take a little longer than usual. Take the cakes out of the tray and leave them to cool on a wire rack.

You might want to use colour coded paper cases to avoid ambushing yourself with a broccoli cake!

Trick or Treat – take your pick!

 trick-or-treat-3

Iodine and Radiation

Iodine is important in the thyroid gland, which produces hormones affecting the entire body. A lack of iodine can stunt mental and physical growth in children; it causes a variety of symptoms in adults. Goitres – where the neck is swollen from an enlarged thyroid gland – used to be common in certain areas. The provision of iodised table salt has helped eliminate this uncomfortable problem.

The thyroid is a temperamental part of your body. It can be overactive; this makes you ill as well, and can be brought on by an excess of iodine. The USA recommends a daily intake of 0.15 milligrams (150 micrograms) for adults.  Most people in developed countries take in more than this RDA, around 0.25 to 0.4 milligrams.  In Japan, where the diet is full of iodine-rich seafoods, people can be eating up to three milligrams a day. One milligram a day is generally considered excessive though.

The effects of too much iodine are most pronounced when suddenly increasing your dose. This effect was observed in the salt supplement programme, and is a danger if taking iodine as protection against radioactive fallout. You should have a pack of the right type of iodine tablets in your emergency stores as speed is crucial to protect your thyroid, and they are quite hard to come by in Britain. ‘Thyrosafe‘ is recommended by some prepper sites.

The tablets need to be taken on exposure, and while the risk of breathing contaminated air lasts. They also protect your thyroid gland – and only this – against radioactive iodine from fallout dust in your food and drink. Iodine-131 and many other isotopes of iodine released by a nuclear accident decay over the course of days if not hours – hence the need for speed. By taking in clean iodine, you are preventing your body from taking up the poisonous sort. As your body excretes the unused portion, you have to repeat the dose every 24 hours until out of danger.

The risk from radiation will reduce over time; the pills may make your neck feel swollen and uncomfortable. There are other unpleasant side effects, even severe allergic reactions. The Thyrosafe ones contain 65 milligrams of iodine each, which is way over the RDA. You have to balance the dangers; the situation differs for children and the elderly. Have a packet of dried seaweed in your stores to keep up good iodine levels in an ordinary diet.

Don’t drink the sort of iodine you dab on wounds. This is poisonous tincture of iodine and not meant to be swallowed, though it can be used to purify water for drinking, as can bleach. Do some serious research before you try out any of these emergency life savers. Uninformed use can be harmful.

The Resilience Handbook is a book designed for the digital age. The information in it is tightly packed and depends on you getting involved with the suggested actions to unlock it. I’ve supplied a framework from which you can explore the wealth of knowledge available in the internet to fill in the details according to your own way of life, the options you have.

When I looked at iodine and radiation, researching for my next book, I learned that not all forms of iodine can be taken in by the body at all. There were a large number of ‘iodine supplements’ on the market. Many of the websites offering these for sale were full of cookies and pop-ups. I don’t trust these sites for information.

I looked down the search list and picked some more reputable sites to get the scientific version. The FDA have published ‘Potassium Iodide as a Thyroid Blocking Agent in Radiation Emergencies‘ which explored its use post-Chernobyl. From that information, I was able to refine my search, filtering down through survivalist sites to a market place and finally to a UK supplier. You’ll expect to pay about £35 for a ten day supply; half of that seems to be shipping from the USA.

For more information about emergency planning and food stores, read ‘The Resilience Handbook – How to survive in the 21st century’

October Diary 2016

It’s about time for another diary post, since it’s been a busy week here in Somerset.

Thursday was the Community Food Forum, an annual event organised by Feed Avalon. Around forty people gathered this year – its third – to network and exchange ideas. It was great to see projects like Plotgate, a community supported agriculture venture near Barton St David, developing from their initial fund raising to a successful business!

There seems to be a steady increase of interest in growing food, with new sectors engaging every year. This time there were people who work with mental health, where its therapeutic benefits are being recognised.

Saturday saw the Glastonbury Town Council hold a public consultation on possible uses for a splendid old building they have just acquired for the community. It would be ideal for a practical crafts centre; I’d like to see that combined with an ‘eco-college’ like Dartington Hall in Devon. We could explore local materials for textiles and ceramics – Somerset having a lot of wool and clay.

edible flower baskets in Glastonbury
edible flower baskets in Glastonbury

In the evening, I went to the energy evening hosted by Green Wedmore. The purpose of the presentation and following debate was to explore future energy options for the local area. The range of these on the table was impressive. Not only solar, wind and hydropower, but also biomass from the surrounding RSPB nature reserves and anaerobic digestion using farm waste.

Vince Cable, former business secretary, gave the introduction and Pete Capener from Bath and West Community Energy provided an inspiring talk on how the renewables industry is adapting to a hostile government. I chatted to a long-serving member of the parish council, who’d recently had an impressive 16Kw array installed on the roofs of her farm buildings – using panels built in Wrexham. We snacked on excellent smoked trout vol au vents from the nearby aqua farm. The people of Wedmore intend to take quality with them into their sustainable future!

Someone had brought a particularly backward article just published in the Times. After spending much of the last forty years off grid, I view people who harp on about ‘the lights going out’ with the same astonishment as I’d view a flat-earther. Lights are easy. Washing machines, even freezers, are well within the scope of a modern personal renewables system without mains backup.

Tumble driers now, you could have a point.  It’s not such a rousing battle cry though – ‘without nuclear power, you might have to actually hang your clothes out to dry!’

Meanwhile, the smart consumer is considering the benefits of making their own electricity…..

solar power regulator

The best way to start this process is by looking at the devices you use already, and finding out how much electricity they use.  In the Energy chapter of the Resilience Handbook, task eight asks ‘can you calculate how much of your home could run on a supply of 2 kilowatts?’  This level of supply is not only possible with a personal solar array, but designed to use a small ‘suitcase’ generator as emergency backup. ( More power requires a larger, noisier generator.)

Once you know the answer to this question, you’ve got a much better idea what local energy can do for you – it’s more resilient than a centralised power supply!

For more information about food and energy resilience, read ‘The Resilience Handbook – How to survive in the 21st century’

Wells Food Festival

It was a glorious autumn day, dry and sunny. The rows and swirls of colourful stalls filled the grassy spaces around the ancient stone walls of the Bishop’s Palace, spilled over into the antique Recreation Ground next door, surrounded its bandstand and carried on down the lane, where our Food For Thought marquee was.

The venue looked splendid, thanks to the lovely Laura and the Wells food group team. It was decorated with vintage bunting, lit by electric chandeliers! After an early set-up, there was a little time to wander among the booths outside admiring the huge variety of local produce on sale.

My advice – go there hungry, and with plenty of spare cash! I couldn’t resist the Gilbert and Swayne chocolates, each one a tiny work of art. Some huge chunks of fudge for another birthday present – I sampled the Marmite flavour, which was not at all awful. Then it was time for the show to begin and the 15,000 visitors to start exploring.

We were so busy that I didn’t manage to photograph the enormously entertaining Human Fruit Machine, nor even get to the cordon bleu cookery on a budget demonstrations at the far end of our tent. I spent the whole day chatting about food resilience to a stream of fascinating people. I learned that people in London still don’t have much to do with their neighbours, that mountain sheep in Snowdonia have their own culture passed down over generations. We discussed Tyre Gardening with pictures and I gave away all my ‘fourteen day stores’ recipes/ingredients leaflets.

It was a great day out, an excellent start to the Wells Festivals season!

Thanks to Sean and Elliot, the visiting chefs from the Ale and Oyster, Ventnor for the leftover pasta dough from the workshops – I managed to cook real pasta for the first time back at home!

Knowing that you have fourteen days’ supply of food gives you confidence in a situation where supplies are interrupted, or you can’t use the roads. You may not be flooded yourself, but the way to the shops could become difficult. Give the emergency services space and stay in, living well from your stores!

They’re also useful for unexpected dinner guests – and for those who suddenly announce they are vegan!

Recipe list and ingredients for 14 day food store  – download the leaflet 

For more information about emergency planning and food resilience, read ‘The Resilience Handbook – How to survive in the 21st century’

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