Doing the math…

A long time ago, in the early days of the WWW, I was a member of an inspirational American website & online community, Frugal Moms. There didn’t seem to be anything like it UK-based, although that, of course, has changed since. Everyone’s favourite book was Amy Dacyczyn’s Tightwad Gazette, and our battlecry rapidly became her iconic phrase “Do the math!” Just as appropriate here in the UK, even though we’d need an extra “s” – meaning, always sit down & work out whether it is actually worthwhile to do or buy something.

That doesn’t simply mean, “Can we afford it?” That’s a sensible question in its own right, but this goes further; I’d interpret it as, “Is it worthwhile affording it?” whatever it may be? As a very simple example, when we were looking for a new cooker, I insisted on quite an expensive make, rather than just one that fitted the space, did what we needed (to be fair, given a larger family, most modern cookers don’t) and looked the part. I put my foot down & insisted on a make that’s known for reliability and ease of acquiring & fitting spare parts, supplied by a firm with a good reputation for customer service. Which we’ve never needed so far, touch wood. We’re about 10 years down the line now and it continues to do the job well and without fuss; previously, no cooker had lasted us more than 5 years, and most had had engineers called out several times during their stint with us. Time is an important element in deciding whether something is worthwhile; your own time surrendered in paying for it, but also saved in using it, plus the length of time it’s likely to last you set against the initial cost.

Two more examples have come into focus lately. The question has been asked, post-Covid, whether it’s worthwhile for me to continue with my market & emporium stalls; after all, we “coped” without the extra income during lockdown. And they do take up some of my time & energy, and of course, there are costs involved. But as far as I’m concerned, the answer is a resounding “Yes!” – psychologically I need to have a little independent income, and I enjoy what I do, despite the hauling round of heavy stuff and inevitable mess while I clean and restore it. As far as I’m concerned, reclaiming worthwhile tools and materials is an excellent use of time, and I have lots of lovely, creative customers who I very much enjoy meeting. We couldn’t live on what I bring in, but it has for some years paid for extras. There will come a time when it’s no longer practical or possible, but – that day is not this day, to paraphrase a well-known fantasy film.

And is the allotment worthwhile, in purely financial terms? This has not been the most productive of years, thanks to a very dry spring, a mud-bath in May leading to a weed explosion which I’m still battling, and a cold grey August which led to stalled growth for the leeks and cabbages, the dreaded tomato blight, and an almost total lack of female flowers on my squash plants. However, quoting from a post I made on MSE’s forums:

“Another 850g of raspberries brought home this morning, along with a bag of just-popped-up spuds, enough beans for a meal for 5 and a courgette, plus a load of cabbage outer-leaves for the Girls (the chickens, rather than my daughters) from my neighbour, who’s clearing his plot for the winter – he will be rewarded with half a dozen eggs! I keep my plot producing over winter where possible, feeding the soil with mulches rather then resting it, and am currently planting mooli, overwintering onions and broad beans, with garlic yet to go; the kale, leeks (if they ever get any bigger!) and chard will keep producing right through. 

In response to a question from my Other Half, I was also working out whether allotmenteering is financially worthwhile; the plot rental is £50 per annum. But I don’t think a single week has gone by over the last year without me bringing home at least £5 worth of produce, at normal prices, and actually I’m growing without chemicals, so organic prices might be a better comparison. I’ve brought home over 5Kg of raspberries over the last few weeks; at W8rose prices of £3 for 300g, i.e. £10 per kilo, that’s the rent paid even if I hadn’t grown anything else! Of course there are some other expenses; I’ve bought some netting, some secondhand water pipes & a few seeds this year, but most of the tools & equipment I need have been sourced secondhand or free.”

Well worthwhile, in my view. Add in fresh air and exercise, meaning I don’t have to pay gym fees to stay active & relaxed, and for me, it’s a winner, though I’d still rather be growing it all in my own garden! (But sadly, that isn’t big or sunny enough.) I know I’m very lucky to be capable of maintaining it, albeit not all that well or quite as the site managers would like to see it (i.e. bare earth, neat rows) but I’d urge anyone who has the opportunity & the time to take one on to get stuck in & give it a whirl.

I’d also urge them to “do the math” – everyone’s situation is different. What pays off for me might not pay off for you, if you paid the plot rental but then weren’t able to keep it going. (Or if you bought lots of expensive tools and equipment, then gave up after a couple of years, which does seem to happen quite a lot.) The right cooker for our reasonably-sized kitchen and more-than-reasonably-sized family wouldn’t be the right choice for a singleton, or for someone producing food for sale. Some tools pay for themselves very quickly, in financial terms like a sewing machine can, or in terms of time saved, and some add so much to your quality of life that they’re worth every penny spent, but others – don’t. I’m reminded of the expensive food processor that just moved the work from before the meal to afterwards, because it was such nightmare to clean!

Anyway, enough rambling. I’ll leave you with some pictures taken at the allotment today…

A bee enjoying one of my daughter Sarah’s sunflowers.

Putting a resolution into action…

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…

Following on…

… from “Another Cautionary Tale” where I acknowledged that many people are – somewhat cautious – about buying second-hand supplies and equipment, I’ve recently had a classic example come exploding into my own life. I was cruising our local charity shops looking for a little black cardi with ¾-length sleeves when I spotted something interesting hiding on a low shelf. An ice-cream maker… one of the very best makes, a Gaggia Gelatiera, not new but obviously not much-used, at about one-tenth of the original cost. PAT-tested, and that shop will refund without a fuss if things don’t work properly.

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Raspberry Sorbet under construction!

On a list of all the kitchen gadgets that are simply not necessary, ice-cream makers must come close to the top. But long ago I blew up my trusty Kenwood Chef, terminally, trying to make ice-cream, because I love good ice-cream, made with fresh ingredients that I can actually spell. We’ve made it a few times by dashing out to the garage, where the big chest freezer lives, and whisking frantically every now & then, but somehow we’d never achieved the smooth creamy deliciousness that I craved. I did consider saving up to buy a machine, but it certainly wasn’t a priority – and oh boy, did we need to prioritise! – and most of them didn’t make nearly enough for a family of seven plus the odd guest. I wanted one which did the whole job, rather than one where you need to freeze the bowl in advance; I knew I’d never be organised enough to put it in in advance, and if I left it in the freezer full-time, it used up space that could have been used to store food…

But now there are only four of us at home full-time. There’s a bit more space available, and I’m lucky enough to be in a position where I can frequently get brilliant bargains on fruit, thanks to our local market. So I barely hesitated; at that price, it had to be worth a try…

It’s wonderful. We’ve made loads of ice-cream & sorbet, and are about to start on the frozen yogurt. The web is a fantastic resource; there are loads of recipes out there, but most have to be adjusted to the size of our machine, which can only handle 600ml of contents at a time, though it came with two spare bowls & paddles, so we can always do several batches, one after another. So far we have made Stracciatella, Chocolate, Strawberry, Strawberry & Prosecco, Gin & Tonic, Cherry, Cherry & Mascarpone, Pineapple & Mango Sorbet, Raspberry Sorbet, Blood Orange & Star Anise Sorbet, & Kiwi Sorbet, many of those more than once! Kiwi sorbet is the only one that hasn’t been that popular, and I think I may try a different recipe next time I can get about 20 kiwis for £1.

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A batch of Cherry Ice Cream ready for the freezer…

Last Sunday I was given, for free, a huge bag of very ripe cherries “for your chickens” as my favourite greengrocers were starting to pack their stall down. About a quarter of them were “going over” and did go straight to the chickens (who love them) but the rest were perfectly acceptable provided I could use them up swiftly. Luckily I have an old tool for removing the stones from olives; it also works on cherries. I froze a large tray of them for future reference, gave some away, made another batch of cherry ice cream, and turned the remainder into jam, along with a few strawberries that needed to be used up, the next morning. The ice-cream has been stashed away in the big freezer, and hopefully one winter’s evening it will tickle our tastebuds into believing it’s summer once more. That said, there are lots of autumn/winter ice-cream recipes out there (blackberry & apple, quince & pear, lovely spicy things) and we’re beginning to get confident enough just to try things out for ourselves.

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So there you are; sometimes a secondhand bargain can let you try something out which will turn out to be well worthwhile!