Thursday, 23 October 2008

Frugality vs. cheapness

Getting ready to head to the borders tomorrow, to the Herefordshire Food Festival (and possibly the Cowbridge one as well). So I thought I had better make some room in the freezer. Dug out a pack of mince I'd added chopped onion to before freezing, some sweetcorn and green beans and the remains of a butternut squash that had served as a doorstop for a couple of weeks. Added seasoning and spices, including a more generous than usual dash of chilli and set it on a low heat. Once this was cooking away I chucked in a can of own brand baked beans and some tomato puree. Once ready garnish with grated cheese (what else?)

A decent chilli in next to no time and fairly low cost. Could have stretched it with rice, but the point was to use up some stray bits and bobs.

Last week I spotted a chunk of perfectly good Stilton cheese in the reduced aisle. Like Brie, when Stilton is reaching its Use By date in the eyes of the supermarket, it is in fact just coming into its prime. That small block of cheese turned into three good dishes - Stilton & walnut pasta, Stilton and bacon risotto and a Stilton and bacon toasted sarnie on black rye bread. There was enough of the pasta and risotto to do lunch the next day. Five meals from one wedge of cheese. Not bad at all.

The point is, being frugal does not mean always buying the cheapest option. I remember years ago, when I was jobless and living alone, I could do a weekly shop for a tenner. My cupboards were mostly full of lentils, pot barley, pasta, rice and tinned tomatoes, but some things I would never downgrade on, then or now. And of course these days I'm able to grow a good proportion of the fruit and veg ration.

A good quality artisan loaf of bread will taste better, be more satisfying and probably more nutritious than the average commercial loaf. If you've never tried any, have a slice of sourdough bread spread with a little butter. After that, the standard Chorleywood method shop bought loaf with have the taste and texture of a washing up sponge.

And while we're on it - butter is a far better option than margarine. Ignore the saturated fats argument - how much can you really get through in a day? Even without going into the industrial process required, the ingredient list on a tub of margarine should alarm you.

Eggs have to be free range - just use wisely.

If you eat meat, supermarkets are not the best place to shop. All you get is the most profitable cuts, pre-packed and flabby. I'm lucky enough to have a good butcher nearby, and I'm able to get the cheaper cuts over the counter, in whatever size portion I need. They are often able to tell me the farm, and sometimes even the field the animal came from. Many of the cheapest cuts of meat are at their best cooked slowly, with loads of vegetables - ideal for Winter.

Above all, never scrimp on cheese. A small amount of well flavoured top quality cheese will go much further than a cheap slab of non-tasty mild "cheddar".

Damn sight more fun than chicken nuggets and oven chips.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

The cold wind doth blow......

Hopefully no snow for a while though.

But there's definitely a chill in the air. I've even switched the heater on for an hour or so this past week, but I'm determined to hold off on switching on the central heating for a few weeks yet. Dig out my jumpers, switch to the thicker duvet and add more pot barley and lentils to the diet before that happens!

Made the most of two days of dry weather this weekend and knuckled down to some hard work at the allotment. As the days shorten, the work that needs doing seems to get harder and more physical. The time has come for digging and clearing - we're clearing couch grass and preparing the areas that were too sodden to work on last Autumn and Winter. Hopefully we will be able to improve the soil and in particular the drainage to maximise the space available to grow fruit around the edges of the plot. First things first, have to bring the brambles back under control now they've stopped fruiting.

Just as we were packing up to leave yesterday, there was a commotion in the trees and a Mallard duck landed in the nettle patch on the next plot. I went to check she wasn't injured and she looked fine, but she waddled off deeper into the woods. We followed her and "herded" back out to the more open plots. After a rest and a chance to regain her bearings she flew over the fence and onto the brook, which was a relief as with dusk falling the foxes were starting to do their rounds.

Today we turned out last year's leaf mould ready to start gathering this year's in the bin. We managed to decant enough rich crumbly well rotted stuff to fill two compost daleks. Not bad for a year doing nothing to it. We also turned out the regular compost bin, and carefully layered the grass we'd cut down on Saturday with the more fully rotted stuff and some strawy manure so it rotted down nicely through the Winter.

Howard made a bumble bee shelter out of bricks and roof tiles, and stuffed it with wood chippings and dry leaves, as a few bumble bees had started hibernating in our wood chip bin. They were safely transferred to the new shelter, which was then covered in more leaves and branches.

So two days of useful work. With most of the overwintering crops sown and planted, we are on track in case the weather turns. We're also going to be away next weekend, so the extra hours compensate for that.

We're off to the Herefordshire Food Festival next weekend. We went last year and thoroughly enjoyed it, so decided to go this year as well. It's a part of the country we love - there seems to be an extra intensity to the colour green once you cross the county boundary. And how many cities as small as Hereford can boast three well stocked cook shops?

Anyway, the tasks noted in the Wartime Weekend Gardener for this weekend and next are:

Lift and store root crops ahead of the frost. Some roots, parsnip in particular, benefit from some cold, but that's no good if the ground is frozen solid and you can't lift them. As the weather should be mild enough in the South for a few more weeks, lift some and freeze them ready prepped, but be ready to keep some in store once the frosts hit.

Prune fruit trees and bushes. Leaves are starting to fall, but so far nothing is fully bare and dormant on our plot just yet. Once they are, I'll be ready to knock them into shape ready for their new permanent home.

Plant Jerusalem Artichoke tubers. If you haven't grown them before, it may be a good time to think about planting up a new patch. But as I've been growing them for several years, I usually wait until February when I lift the last batch of the year's crop.

Dig and manure bare ground. Well, that's what we started doing this weekend, and will be doing every dry weekend until March.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

You can always rely on the Government to let the people down

It seems that the soundtrack to the past week has been a constant thwack thwack thwack of the shit hitting the fan - with alarming frequency. And the global meltdown has finally impinged on my life. I was due to start a long term temp booking this week, but late on Friday afternoon I was told that due to the financial situation, my prospective employer was going to have to cancel any new temp bookings.

So I'm still on the scrapheap. Never mind, keep plugging away, and in my spare time plan my entry into the black economy. I suspect I won't seen much of the pension money from my last job, so I better find ways of earning money till I drop.

I have to confess, I did purchase a few investments this week. On Tuesday I went to the RHS Autumn Show at their HQ in Westminster, and bought seeds - plenty of them. A few frivolous thins like a yellow Echinacea and some dye plant seeds, but the majority of purchases will go towards feeding us next year.

At least the weather has been good this weekend. We spent a wonderfully productive day over the allotment, and we now have the first of the peas and broad beans sown for next year. We swapped some of my lovely yellow courgettes for a beast of a marrow from our neighbouring plotholder. A few of us picked windfall apples on an abandoned plot. I think there may be a chutney making session in the next couple of days.

We ended up staying until dusk again, and were rewarded by the sight of foxes frolicking in the
long grass, woodpeckers flitting from tree to tree, and as the full moon rose over the woods, a bat looping the loop over the site, just like us making the most of possibly the last good weather until Spring.

Looking in the Wartime Weekend Gardener, tasks for this week include cutting down the dying haulms of Jerusalem Artichokes. Well, mine are still fully green and alive, and some are in flower. I hold off cutting them back until after the first frost, and leave some of the cut down stalks stacked somewhere sheltered so insects can hibernate in them.

Also mentioned is making a last sowing of Winter hardy lettuce. All the varieties mentioned in the book - Hardy Hammersmith, Arctic, Imperial and Stansted Park - are long ago lost. There are however, still a few good traditional cultivars around, mostly originating on the continent. I bought some from the Seeds of Italy stand on Tuesday for this reason. There are a few endives and radiccios that you can try sowing in the next week or so, plus some of the hardier oriental brassicas. They may not put on much growth before Spring, but a few fresh leaf crops surviving under cloches through the Winter will be very welcome.

It may be another Winter of Discontent for many, but for me it's a chance to prepare. A lot of people are starting to realise that the easy times are over. Letting go of your dependence on supermarkets for your food may be difficult for some, but those who started on the path of un-dependence a while are reaping the benefits already (literally!)

Saturday, 4 October 2008

The Start of My Autumn Almanac

As I write, the wind is howling and rushing through the trees. The flock of geese gathering at the lake have given up flying round in larger and larger flocks for the night, and are honking to each other on the island in the middle of the water. The planes that pass over en route to and from the three airports nearby are flying lower because of the cloud and sound like they're barely clearing the roof.

Right now, Summer feels long gone and I doubt I'll see the sun for a few months.

So much for an Indian Summer. The season has changed in a matter of days. At the start of the week the Maple tree I can see from the window was still green. By Thursday it had turned a deep crimson. Several of the other trees nearby have taken on hues ranging from yellow to bronze. Pretty soon I'll be raking up leaves and refilling my leaf mould bin at the allotment.

Apologies for missing last week. On Saturday we went to the Malvern Autumn Show with a couple of friends we've made over the new allotment. We set out early in the thick fog, which meant that many of the most scenic parts of the journey were barely visible. Even the great gap in the chalk hills as we left the Chilterns at Stokenchurch was missed because of the weather. In fact, when we arrived at the show, it was still foggy enough for the backdrop of the ridge of the Malvern Hills to be lost in the murk. Our friends had never visited the area before, so when we emerged from the exhibition and monster vegetable show tent to find the sun had finally burnt through, they were enchanted by the view. We all had a great day, comparing the prize winning veg with those we'd grown or had won at our allotment show, looking at the chicken houses and poultry show, then the old cider making machines and taking notes. I was remarkably sensible. Apart from a couple of Alpine plants to go in a trough, everything I bought from the gardening section of the show was "productive". Ok, I suspect that the Samphire plants may not grow as well as they could in the correct habitat, but we should be able to get a few leaves off them. Somehow or other, we managed to prevent the "boys" from spending the whole day in the classic and vintage vehicle section of the show, and managed to make it to the food hall. As we were getting a lift home, I was careful not to buy any ripe cheese, but stocked up on a few goodies all the same.

We broke our return journey for dinner, having realised that apart from some Water Buffalo milk ice cream and half a pint of artisan single variety cider, all I'd had to eat and drink all day had been samples from the various stalls. In spite of the break in the long journey, we arrived home well before midnight.

The following day, once our legs had recovered from all the walking, we headed over the allotment to start planting our purchases - red onions, garlic, elephant garlic and shallots. We also started preparing the ground for sowing the broad beans and peas we had bought. Those will go in over the next couple of weeks, and the century old varieties of sweet peas will be sown to overwinter in pots in the greenhouse before the month is out too.

Although I missed a week's entry, I didn't miss an entry in the Wartime Weekend Gardener, as it was one of the "spare" weekends. The instructions for the first weekend of October are:

Plant some extra Spring Cabbage seedlings, to allow for the inevitable losses from pigeons etc. over the next few months. We put a fleece cage over our kale seedlings, and something - squirrel I suspect - has been using the top as a trampoline.

Also, sow some Winter Radish. Although still a less popular crop, some varieties, such as Black Spanish, grow large enough to substitute for turnip, but with a little extra kick.

Anyway, wrap up warm, and those who need it - get your flu jab. I suspect that even if it isn't a hard Winter, it's going to be a miserable one.