Some of you already know that I live in a little medieval market town, not far from the market itself. For many years, I’ve done the bulk of my food shopping there, which has saved us a fortune & provided us with plentiful good, fresh & seasonal food, with more variety than is available in most supermarkets. In some cases I was handing our money over to my children’s classmates’ parents, thus keeping our own local economy thriving.
Sadly the market has dwindled down to a shadow of its former self, and is due to close shortly, to make way for an exclusive “retirement village” or Granny Ghetto, as some have dubbed it. The fact that many of our own local elderly residents won’t be able to afford the “retirement lifestyle” and won’t be able to get to the relocated market, a mile out of town, evidently hasn’t tugged any heartstrings at planning permission level. So I’ll use these last few weeks of The Market to document some of the amazing bargains I pick up, and how I use them.
Today’s bargain was 18 x 350g punnets of Spanish cherry tomatoes for £3, i.e. 6.3kg, just tipping slightly into over-ripe territory. That’s quite a few… so far I’ve used 6 punnets in a big pot of tomato & coriander soup, along with two of the 8 courgettes picked at the allotment yesterday and one of our home-grown onions that had got a little bruised on harvesting. One more punnet has gone into a chilli this evening, leaving me with 11 to go. I was musing about whether to dehydrate some – still a possibility – but my Other Half’s face lit up at the mention of Tomato & Chilli relish. So that will be tomorrow’s major project, after producing our traditional Sunday roast dinner.
In other news, as son no. 3 always says, I have finally made the new curtains for our kitchen revamp. I’ve only had the fabric, a William Morris misprint, a mere – 3 years? – since we chose it! And there was some left over, enough to do 4 seat-pads for our eclectic mix of vintage kitchen chairs, using some foam that came up on our local Freegle group. Sadly there are actually 8 chairs, so now I have a dilemma – do I buy some more, or let the project rest now I’ve used up what I had, & get on with the rest of the kitchen?
Last night I woke with a start at 2am, as a random thought suddenly clicked into focus. I’d wondered a couple of times lately why the elderly chest freezer in the garage, which I’ve been meaning to defrost for months, had been switched to “super”, so I grumpily kept switching it back to normal. Maybe one of the girls needed to cool something rapidly & forgot about it? Maybe one of the cats trod on the switch?
No. In the dark of the night I realised that it was so iced-up it was running constantly, on “super” because normal just wasn’t maintaining the temperature any longer as warm air leaked in around the iced-up seals. So defrosting it suddenly leapt to the top of my “to-do” list & first thing this morning I was out there, hauling the contents out & stuffing them into a vast assortment of cool-boxes and insulating wraps – mostly old wool blankets. Luckily everything was still absolutely solid.
Then it struck me; oops, I had no idea how long some of the contents had been in there. It was high time for a good sort out… This freezer’s been great at keeping things very, very cold, but it is reaching the end of its expected life & showing the strain somewhat; I should be running the contents down & saving up ready to replace it within the year. So whilst it was defrosting enough to scrape the rest of the built-up ice off gently, I ran down to the market and invested in a notebook.
As stuff went back in, I logged it. I thought I only had a couple of packs of meat or fish in there; actually, there were 20-odd items. There’s cheese and butter. I thought I’d used the last of our home-grown beans up over Christmas, but there were 3 more bags in there. I’d completely forgotten the bags of grated golden courgettes, intended to bulk out soups & stews. There’s enough apple & pumpkin in the bottom to sink a battleship, and several bags of roasted butternut squash chunks. All of it carefully, lovingly & organically grown…
There’s no huge rush to use up the things I know only went in there a month or two ago, especially not as we still have trays of wrapped apples and several large squashes to eat up first. And the meat, not to mention the cheese, will see us through the next couple of months with very little need to visit a supermarket; the idea will be to use something from the freezer every other day at least. If I had a New Year’s resolution at all this year, it was to use up stuff that we already have; admittedly I was thinking of fabric & yarn, but it works across the board really. Here’s my chance!
Some of the other things had definitely been in there for longer than I cared to remember – raspberries, blueberries, & blackberries from 2018 or before, all of them market bargains or foraged from the hedgerows. So I decided to make “Freezer Jam” with them, rather than let them go to waste.
I weighed the bags of fruit, then an appropriate amount of sugar – a little less than the total weight of the fruit; I don’t like my preserves too sweet – then chopped up the very last of this year’s quinces, hoping they’d provide at least a little pectin to set the jam. I chucked it all into my preserving pan & let it all melt down together. At this point I realised that some of the “blueberries” were in fact sloes, so had to stop & push the whole lot through a colander to remove the stones. But the taste was really gorgeous; deep, dark & tangy, well worth the extra work!
So now we have 5 full-size jars and 2 small ones of “Freezer Jam”. And yes, it seems to be setting just fine. When I made the Medlar jam, I said I hadn’t expected to be making jam in December. Well, I really hadn’t expected to be making it in January too!
That said, there’s a bag of Seville oranges in the conservatory awaiting my attention…
I’m shattered. We’ve been lucky enough to have had a wonderful apple crop from the two big trees (an elderly Blenheim Orange and a Russet) this autumn; I remember worrying in Spring that it wasn’t getting pollinated, as I couldn’t see any bees on the blossom. However a couple of months later the kiwi fruit plant was humming with pollinators, so loudly that you could hear them from the road, so they are still out there somewhere.
A huge apple crop is a mixed blessing; they need to be dealt with as soon as they fall, especially if they don’t have a soft landing, as many of ours don’t, and circumstances just didn’t allow that this year. So a young friend’s pigs benefited from quite a few sacks of windfalls.
We’ve filled all our wooden apple trays, and the freezer’s bursting at the seams. Some have been dehydrated, and many turned into chutney or a base for other jams. Those neighbours who didn’t see us coming in time have been issued with carrier bags full. The garden’s littered with windfalls again and I still have a big basket of undamaged hand-picked apples to process. It’s amazing how many interesting apple recipes there are out there to try; Toffee Apple ice-cream is a new favourite! But the best news is that the windfalls have attracted a hedgehog back to our garden, after several years of not seeing any evidence of them.
So the arrival of a large crop of tree-quinces too has not been greeted with unalloyed joy, delightful though they are! We had just started picking them – they’re usually a little later than the apples – when a gale hit last weekend and brought most of them crashing down. They may have been ready, but I wasn’t! Believe me, quinces are much harder than apples to peel & chop, even assisted by a food processor. My hands are aching! But the taste of Quince, Pineapple & Rosemary marmalade makes it all worthwhile… And I’m almost out of re-used jamjars again, despite a kind friend donating 3 large bags full.
I’ve been up to some interesting projects over the summer and will post more about those shortly. I’ll also do a d-i-y Christmas Cracker tutorial, as promised last year. Now the evenings are dark again, I can mysteriously find time to sit at the computer again, rather than going for lovely long walks at the riverbank!
It’s been a while… but I am steaming towards fully-restored health now, and beginning to take up the reins of my little business, and feel up to nattering with the world again…
I know a lot of people are – cautious – about buying second-hand craft supplies and equipment; sometimes things have “moved on” and equipment has been vastly improved, designs are very different to what people wanted 30 years ago, and some supplies may not have been quite as well-kept as one would wish. Moths, for example, do not let you know they’ve invaded your stash…
HOWEVER there are huge savings to be made if you’re not averse to profiting by other people’s mistakes. I’m about to tell you a tale that I’ve heard many times, in one form or another, over the last ten years, the last example only yesterday. Here’s her story:
“I worked hard, all the hours of the day, for many years running my own business, but all along I just wanted to find the time to sit & stitch. I love stitched textiles passionately; my home is full of them, I buy them constantly and couldn’t imagine anything more inspiring than being able to make them myself! So I’d go to exhibitions when I was away on business trips, and buy all the stuff – kits and frames, special needles, scissors and collections of thread – and stash it all away for my retirement. Anyway, I retired last summer, and joined a stitching circle, and started work on a huge project at long last.
I hated it! It’s so darn fiddly and time consuming! I’d work hard all day, then realise that I’d only actually achieved a tiny amount and half of that was wrong and would have to be unpicked. A friend suggested trying a smaller project so that I’d feel it was more manageable, but I didn’t enjoy that any more than the big one. Then I became ill and couldn’t do any more. They’ve sat there in the corner since then, and now we need to downshift and won’t have room for anything we don’t need…”
And there was the lady who’d owned her spinning wheel from brand new, back in the 1980s, and had never actually put it together. Come retirement, again from running her own business, out it came, and was constructed with much delight. But sadly, she didn’t “take” to spinning. Having been someone who was just about instantly successful at everything she turned her hand to, we simply couldn’t get her to slow up enough to fall into the rhythm of spinning, so she became very frustrated and decided not to bother in the end.
Not to mention the large upright rug loom taking up quite a lot of space in our conservatory… I really, really do want to make beautiful Finnish-style rugs out of reclaimed textiles, but somehow I haven’t even got round to warping it up yet, and it’s been there for over a year. Admittedly I’ve had a few other things on my mind for the last six months, but once I’d got stuck in with my twining loom (which couldn’t be easier to use – you can just tear up old bedding & get straight on with it) the idea of calculating a warp & cutting thousands of wool strips before I could start to make anything with the big loom kind of receded from the top end of my to-do list!
So I’m advising you; if you’re attracted to a particular craft, try it out BEFORE investing a small fortune in equipment or dedicating a large amount of space to it. Most crafts have local groups of people working at different levels in a social setting, like the Guilds of Weavers Spinners & Dyers, or Lacemakers, or Quilters. Often these groups have equipment to try out, lend or hire out, and there are usually ways to acquire secondhand equipment and supplies inexpensively through them. Alternatively, there are friendly general craft & social groups out there, meeting in cafés, libraries and pubs, and experts prepared to share their skills and ideas for a small consideration, who will point you in the right direction for equipment & supplies.
Different equipment suits different users, too; it’s no good buying a spinning wheel just because it’s the same as everyone else has got, if it doesn’t suit your style of spinning, or you’re six inches taller or shorter than they are. Or knitting with standard cold metal needles if you have arthritis in your hands. You don’t need to spend vast amounts on fat quarters to make your first quilt; check out the 99p rails in your local charity shops as many gents’ shirts are made from pure high-quality cotton & there’s much more than a fat quarter in the back alone. As for tiered cotton skirts…
You don’t have to buy everything new. There will come a time when you know exactly what you need and only new will do, but until then, there are plenty of useful & delightful resources out there to do amazing things with; all you need to do is look…
OK, I’m back! This little petition request (above) popped into my inbox this morning, and really lit a fuse under my still-somewhat-sluggish mind. It’s a subject dear to my heart and woven throughout the fabric of my life; food, and the production thereof, is THE most fundamental factor in our collective health after clean water. Even above sanitation & the miracles of modern medicine; if you are healthy & well-nourished, you stand a far better chance of fighting back effectively should misfortune strike.
But what people seem to lack today is the power to make sane & sensible food choices, because they have no basis to make those choices except advertising from the manufacturers & purveyors of junk foods. Thanks to the steady downgrading & elimination of Home Economics, Domestic Science and the like from our school curriculum (subjects that enabled people to stand on their own two feet at home and often went far beyond that) many people actually seem unaware that they do have choices apart from what’s in front of them on the supermarket shelf, no matter how devoid of actual goodness it may be. Not to mention the fact that they usually have no time to spend pursuing more sensible (and usually more delicious) choices, or actually cooking them, or experimenting to get the best out of them. And many people lack the space & time to grow their own.
How can small local food businesses, selling decent produce, survive in a marketplace dominated by giant supermarket chains unless people know there are other choices available? How can farmers stand up to the ever-growing pressure to reduce costs by cutting corners if we don’t care enough to reward them?
How can children appreciate good food if they’ve never tasted it? We all know the battles we’ve been through to get reluctant children to try something new, something that their friends perhaps don’t eat, but we also know that mostly, with persistence, that battle can eventually be won. I have fond memories of administering a “green box” scheme, where the farmer delivered to & the customers collected from my doorstep; one of my sons, then aged four, would prowl up & down surreptitiously to identify the customers who didn’t like kale, then happily inform them that, actually, he did. Nine times out of ten, thanks to his big blue eyes, we’d end up with extra kale to stir-fry to crispy with garlic & soy sauce. Naughty boy! But he still loves kale now, aged twenty-six and halfway through a PhD…
It doesn’t just come down to money, although time is definitely a big factor. We all know people who eat well & thrive on a tiny budget, and people who have plenty of money but are suffering from all the ills that modern society can inflict on them. That’s not to say that there aren’t people who genuinely do not have enough money or resources to eat well, or at all, much to our collective shame; there are far too many, for far too many different reasons, mostly not self-inflicted. But for the vast majority of people whose weekly trolleys are laden down with junk, it’s lack of awareness that there is another way that’s hammering them, from both the health and budgetary angles. Or lack of confidence to at least try… and that’s what could so easily be addressed at a young age, if the political will to act is there.
To put it in terms that even a politician could understand: people cannot make sensible choices if they are not aware that there are choices…
It’s no good insisting that this education should take place in the home, when many young parents have never learnt themselves to cook or budget. This is not necessarily a new problem; witness my poor mother‘s experience. (Luckily for us, my “aunt” Ethel was a good & dedicated cook…) The lack of importance given to this subject for many years, the downgrading of domestic knowledge and inspiration, the idea that domesticity equals drudgery have all played a part in crippling us. As has the idea that seeking to make the best of the resources available to you is somehow “cheapskating” rather than just plain sensible.
Personally I think the time has come to get angry about this; we are all, or have been, suffering because we don’t know any better, or we’re not confident enough to try – and we could be, so easily…
…wouldn’t go amiss! Those of you who frequent the Old-Style MSE forum may have noticed that I’ve gone way over on my grocery budget this month, and I’m actually at a bit of a loss to explain it. That probably means it’s a combination of factors, starting with me not paying proper attention to what I’m buying/growing & cooking. There’s also definitely an element that basic foodstuffs have been steadily creeping upwards in price, downwards in quantity and in some cases vanishing altogether from the easily-available supermarket shelves.
Anyway, one of the best tools I have for keeping costs under control is the meal-plan. I used to plan the week’s meals on a Friday morning, when I did the main grocery shop at our local market, but things have changed; some stalls have gone altogether, and some no longer trade on a Friday but others only then, so most weekends I’ll need to pay more than one visit to the market. And of course I work a number of weekends, through the warmer months. So it’s all got a bit chaotic and I need to impose some self-discipline after we had a number of large bills to pay this summer, mostly on the motor & moggy maintenance front.
So I’m going to try to post my weekly meal-plans up here, along with my usual ramblings, and stick to them! Most of the time now I’m just feeding four adults; two omnivores and two pescatarians. The girls will often cook a “main” dish for themselves, though they’ll usually share our vegetables & any carbs, but I try to make sure there are resources available for them to make things with. “HG” stands for home-grown, “HM” stands for home-made, and I’m only planning to list the “mains” – puddings are mostly yogurt or fresh fruit, lunches are HM soup or salad, or poached eggs on toast (though our chickens are currently in the moult, so we’re getting one egg a day out of 10 birds) and breakfasts might be pancakes with fruit, porridge with HM apple butter or crab-apple jelly, or toast made with “good” bread – I’m working on a new & hopefully more palatable sourdough starter right now, thanks to Sharon of Learn Sourdough.
This week’s plan:
Saturday: lamb or sweet potato tagine (using leftover lamb) with bulgur wheat, HG beans, carrots & courgette.
Sunday: roast chicken/roasted veg with roast potatoes, broccoli and HG carrots
Monday: Macaroni & cauliflower cheese & baked beans – beans possibly HM., lots of HG tomatoes to use up!
Wednesday: chicken curry/lentil dahl with rice – frozen veg? Depends…
Thursday: Sausage/bean casserole with any potatoes I can lay my hands on, HG or otherwise, hopefully HG beans & carrots.
Friday – fish dish of some kind, depending on what the market fishmonger’s got at a good price, and whether the boats have been out. Trout sounds good!
I’m hoping to do some more preserving, if the weather plays ball and I can get out for some more blackberries & crab apples. Looks to me like a few more jars of jelly/apple butter would come in handy to get us right through to next summer, but then I’ll move onto chutney. So – will I be able to keep to my self-imposed budget in October? Watch this space…
… to pick up my long-neglected keyboard again. Life has started to calm down a little; the kittens are nearly 6 months old now and not quite so relentlessly cute and playful. My mother has moved, and despite other people’s worries about her leaving her lovely “sheltered” flat, is very much happier in her little bungalow, with a garden she can sit out in, and family & friends close by. I have come to the end of my summer shows, and am starting to move surplus stock on as most of my trading “dates” from now on until next spring are indoors, which means having not much more space than a tabletop. The allotment & garden are in full production and now I need to swing into action on the preserving front. It’s not been such a good year for apples & quinces, but the hedgerow fruits seem to have done rather well.
No. 2 son staggered through the door last night, having done a 12-mile training run whilst suffering from a raging cold, and begged for a lift back to the gym where he’d left his car. I wasn’t doing anything, and it was a chance to see him – he moved out (for the third time) a month or so ago – so gladly agreed. As I drove into the car park opposite the gym, my headlights lit up two little trees groaning under the weight of crab apples. So a good armful of those came home with me, whilst my son suddenly regained his athleticism and hurtled off into the night before anyone recognised him. This afternoon I went down to the old railway and liberated a tub of blackberries, and now a muslin full of boiled crab apples & blackberries, along with a sprig of rosemary from the garden, is dripping into one of my preserving pans to be jellied tomorrow. I must raid the stash of reclaimed jam-jars in the garage & clean them ready for use… Much though I’ll miss summer, and never want it to end, I do love this time of year!
So, it turns out that if you wander off on holiday for the best part of 3 weeks in September, your runner beans get very, very stringy & tough. The plants are still flowering, and the bees are still dancing round them, so I’m not ripping them up just yet, but I think they were basically under the impression that they’d done their job – loads of rock-hard stringy pods full to bursting of plump pink beans!
I had a “Bag For Life” full of them. I asked one or two experienced gardeners what I could do with them, but they shrugged; once you’ve saved your seed for next year (if you want to bother) all you can do is chuck them on the compost heap, apparently. But I was convinced there must be something I could do… so I brought them home and Googled like mad.
A couple of chutney recipes came up. I’m not a huge fan of chutney, but the household does contain one, so I made a big batch. Which used up nearly a quarter of the bag, and a whole evening; those pods really were very tough and razor sharp.
This morning I woke up with a little revelation running through my mind; the pods might be beyond all sensible use, but the beans themselves might not be… So I spent a merry hour this morning shelling the beans, which was not as hard as I’d expected. If you pull the “strings” off, you’ll see that one of the resulting grooves in the side of the pod is deeper than the other. Sometimes you can split it open just with your fingernails; if not, run a sharp knife down that side & you can pull the pod open and remove the beans. No worse than shelling peas, or broad beans.
I ended up with 2 pints of beans:
I popped these into the slow cooker, along with 4 cloves of garlic, chopped up with two medium onions, half a large sweet potato, a quince, about a quarter of a very large courgette/zucchini, and a pint of vegetable stock. Two teaspoons of Ras-el-Hanout, one of salt, a sprinkle of freshly-ground black pepper and a heaped spoonful of coriander leaf/cilantro seemed about right for seasoning.
After two hours on “High” I turned it down to “Low” for the rest of the day. On tasting it, I added some tomato passata, a dash of Worcester Sauce and some more salt; just before serving a sprinkled a little more veggie stock on it, too, as there still seemed to be a little something missing.
I also mashed it a little, which seemed to absorb some of the stock, but left many of the beans intact. I have to report that it went down very well, with at least one “customer” coming back for seconds. I’m hoping there’ll be enough left to freeze some.
The pods have indeed gone into the compost heap, but not all of the beans made it into the casserole. Although I already have some seed saved for next year, and have bought (on offer!) another pack of the same seeds I used this year, it seemed unfair not to save a few more, after all the plants’ hard work!
So hopefully we’ll be off to a flying start next year, and I’m not worried about producing too many now I know there’s something different I can do with them.
And for my next trick: finding something tasty to do with several giant, and I do mean giant, chemical-free pumpkins…
I was at the market in our County Town this morning when I saw a small crowd of people round a fruit & veg stall. They were inspecting a little tower of boxes dubiously. I sidled over, and saw a notice: whole box of strawberries – £2!
Well, irresistible! I checked with the stallholder; it really did mean a whole box, 20 good-sized punnets, for £2. “They’re going over,” he said. “You’ll need to pick your way through.”But the crowd were shaking their heads and wandering off. “Half of ’em are mouldy!” one woman huffed indignantly. Another lady & I looked at each other and laughed; the woman evidently hadn’t worked out that if half of them were no good – and it certainly wasn’t anywhere near half – you would still be getting 10 punnets for £2. Which is quite a bargain!
So I somehow managed to carry the box, mostly balanced on my head, back to my van, whilst dragging my shopping trolley behind me. My mother & I polished off most of one punnet for lunch, and I gave two more to one of my brothers, who happened to appear at an opportune moment. So 17 punnets came home with me.
What to do with 17 punnets of strawberries? I rounded up every jar I could find a lid for and made a massive pan of jam; 11 jars, 4 of them 2lb-ers. I didn’t have any preserving sugar, and strawberries are low in pectin, but I did have these:
…which are full of the stuff. So I boiled up a pan of apples & quinces until really soft, then strained them through a muslin, then chopped the strawberries into the resulting juice and added an equal weight of sugar. Discarding the bad ones as I went, 9 punnets-worth half-filled the pan (it’s a BIG pan) which is enough as I didn’t want it to boil over.
6 punnets-worth have been sliced into my dehydrator; dried strawberries are good in muesli, or yogurt. There’s one punnet of decent berries left in the fridge, and one punnet made its way to a friend.
Altogether, from the 17 punnets I brought home, there were 2½ punnets of debris to throw out – mostly into the chicken run, as they love strawberry tops. So the best part of 14½ punnets, plus the 3 that went elsewhere, were good to use; way more then half! 11 pots of jam for £2, a bit of sugar and some energy… still seems like a good deal to me!
Well. Been busy again… a few weeks back, we had some frantic emails round the Committee of our local Guild of Weavers, Spinners & Dyers, of which I am a member. Some looms and spinning wheels from an old weaving workshop, including a very-historic original Huguenot silk loom, had been stored in a thatched rural loft, which had fallen in. If we couldn’t do something to rescue them fast, they would have to go into a skip…
So off a couple of us trotted, into the wilds of beautiful rural Dorset, where we found a muddle of loom parts in the loft, wherever the thatchers had stacked them, and some spinning wheels, in varying condition, stashed away in a tent on the lawn. Most of these things were hardwood, 30 or more years old, but in fair-to-middling condition, all apart from one wheel, made of softwood & ply, which had been rather well-nibbled. My colleague teaches spinning, with as many pupils as she can handle, most without wheels of their own yet, so she took the wheels. And the owner’s family & I arranged for the truly massive & very historic silk loom to go to the Huguenot Museum in Rochester.
Which left the rest… There were 4 complete looms; a big Harris upright rug/tapestry loom, which I got very excited about, as I’ve always wanted to weave Scandinavian-style rag rugs, an 8-shaft 3′ Harris table loom (and a stand & treadles which it will fit on, although not original) a 4-shaft 2’6″ Dryad floor loom and a curious little 8-shaft beastie with a very innovative system of pulley-operated shafts & upright split-metal heddles.
The rug loom came home with me, and the other three, and some oddments, went to a Guild friend’s barn. With the help of some of my fellow Ravellers, we’ve now identified the little sample loom as a Pioneer, from the NorthWest Loom Company . I got in touch with them; they reckon it’s about 50-60 years old, one of their originals, and should clean up nicely! So the Guild will be renovating that one & keeping it for shows and demonstrations. The other two are awaiting new homes…
Sad to relate, the upright Harris rug loom is just plain too massive for the only space in this house I could possibly keep it… as soon as we got it into place, I realised that it just wouldn’t be fair to my family to hang onto it; they’d be forever clonking heads on the bits that stick out, and our 24’ conservatory just seemed to have vanished! But it’s found a new & enthusiastic home already, I’m happy to report, with someone who is just back from studying tapestry weaving in Peru. So I shall be saving up like mad for one with a smaller footprint and a “lighter” presence.
And that’s what I’ve been up to, quite apart from the hurly-burly of everyday family life and running a micro-business, and that’s why I’ve been a little bit quiet for a while. Trying to house the loom forced me to clear a lot of the mess and excess stock lurking around in the conservatory, so there have been benefits in this little escapade for all the family. And now I can see my way clear for where to put the next one…