Friday 10 November 2017

"Against the dying of the light..."

Do you know that poem by Dylan Thomas, "Do not go gentle into that good night"? Written for the poet's ageing father, slowly losing his sight, the poem is a brave paean against the gathering darkness of physical blindness, ageing and death and stirs up embers of defiance that refuse to lie down under the weight of inevitability. As with all good poems, you can read it on many levels. Although it clearly refers to more than just the seasonal fading of light in autumn in the northern hemisphere, it's very appropriate for that, as well as its more metaphorical themes.

Every year I find the shortening days and increasing darkness more troublesome. It never worried me as a younger person but it really gets to me these days. No wonder people who live in places in the far north, that never really get properly light at all in winter, find depression a common problem.

This year I have found the shortening days even more depressing than I usually do and in order to do something about it, I signed up for a free e-course run by Kathy of Homespun Seasonal Living, called "Embracing the Dark Days". It runs for seven days over this week and next. Each day there are simple but effective suggestions as to how one might embrace the darkness of late autumn in a positive and creative way. I am finding it really helpful.

One of the suggestions at the beginning of the week recommended "setting intentions" - conscious aspirations for ways in which to live positively and creatively during these darkening days. One of the intentions I set for myself was to make sure I get outside every day, not just in the early morning when it is barely light, when I usually walk for half an hour or so, but when the sun is properly up (and hopefully out), in order to maximise the benefit of what light there is.

Not necessarily for more than five or ten minutes, depending on what the day holds, but making sure that I do it every day.

I've found it's really helped this week.

The sun hasn't been shining every day but on Wednesday, after being shut up in a very boring meeting all morning, I seized fifteen minutes to walk from where I had parked the car.

It was gloriously bright and a real tonic against the dying of the light.

Among my other intentions was cleaning something additional to my normal routine cleaning, every day, which may sound a funny choice but I've found it's also really helped combat that increasing feeling of dingy gloominess that can hang about in November. I started with the study windows which hadn't been cleaned for quite a while, I fear. The sun, when it is out, now streams through, unfiltered by the previous veil of dirt. A good (and cheap) way of making the most of what little sun there is, even when one has to be inside.

And for a quick lift to the spirits, I open what was the old coal cupboard and view the results of my preserving activity over the summer and early autumn.

This year, I've got into bottling foraged and home-grown fruit in a big way. My birthday presents this year were a boiling-water-canner and a load of Weck preserving jars as well as some marvellous, thickly-insulated, crinkly, green rubber gloves that make me look and feel like a crocodile - I love them!

My "Crocodile" gloves -
crinkly and insulated for handling very hot jars out of the boiling water canner
I also love the fact that fruit bottled in the old fashioned way is not dependent on electricity for storage. There is no way I could have squeezed all this fruit into my freezer anyway.

Like a quick tour?

What do we have here?

Quite a lot of jars of unsweetened apple purée, with or without vanilla - faller apples, washed, chopped, bruising removed and then cooked with a small piece of split vanilla pod and some water until soft and then put through the mouli, reheated and bottled - very good for breakfast or a quick, simple pudding with some cream or custard.

Assorted jars of slightly sweetened, red fruit compôte - faller apples, wild and garden plums and foraged blackberries, cooked and with a little demerara sugar added, before bottling.

A few jars of rhubarb compôte - rhubarb baked in the oven in its own juices with soft brown sugar and then bottled.

A handful of jars of damson and cobnut mincemeat. A new-to-me recipe to use up a glut of hedgerow damsons. Tasted exceptionally good when I made it and I am hoping it will be equally good in mince pies at Christmas. It has no fat in it at all which I like. I omitted the brandy as I was heating the mincemeat up in the boiling water canner and thought the heat would evaporate the alcohol so I will add a little when I make the pies, if it's rather thick. You can find the recipe here although the damson season is long over, here in the UK.

Some large ex-gin and ex-tonic bottles of damson and apple juice - the juice steam-extracted from foraged damsons and faller apples and then bottled, unsweetened. I use this to make jelly, as in "jelly-and-ice-cream-jelly", but you could also use it to make "jelly-on-toast-jelly" with more sugar and longer boiling. For four light and healthy pudding servings, I use 6 leaves of gelatine and a bit less than 50g of sugar to a pint of this juice. Not quite so light and healthy if you add cream or ice cream, of course! Or if you feel the need to serve homemade hazelnut shortbread with it!

Some smaller bottles of plain crab-apple juice - steam-extracted and unsweetened, before bottling. I will use this in bread-making or to add to jam-making next year with soft, low-pectin fruits.

Hedgerow cordial - an assortment of foraged fruit - blackberries, elderberries, hawthorn berries, rose-hips, faller apples - the juice steam-extracted and boiled up with some sugar and bottled as cordial.

I pour this (mixed with a little blackberry gin) over those bald patches you sometimes get when you turn out a summer pudding, or dilute it with hot water to drink, if anyone has a sore throat.

Four very large Kilner jars of Russian wild plum liqueur - wild red plums, sugar and vodka, macerating slowly since the summer, prior to filtering and pouring into bottles for Christmas gifts and drinking.

Two jars of what will hopefully be homemade Frangelico - vodka, toasted hazlenuts and a split vanilla pod. This is an experiment so I don't know what it will taste like. It will need sweetening as at the moment it has no sugar in it - I must remember that, before I bottle it up and taste it / give it away at Christmastime.

So far, this little lot, (and a few related tubs in the freezer when I ran out of bottling jars), has meant that I have bought no fruit at all (apart from oranges and grapefruits, for juicing) since the beginning of August. It is saving me a fortune as we eat quite a lot of fruit and it's proportionately quite expensive, week by week.

But the cost-saving satisfaction is as nothing compared to the satisfaction I get every time I peep inside the cupboard and look at the serried ranks of jars, quietly sitting in the dark, cold silence like Benedictine monks at Compline, or take a jar back into the light, warm  kitchen and open it with that satisfying hiss, as the vacuum seal is broken for the first time. It's a deep primeval satisfaction that comes from knowing that there is summer goodness and light in there, preserved and stored away, to draw on and nourish body and soul in the dark weeks of winter ahead.

Do you have strategies for keeping the autumn / winter darkness at bay? Or doesn't it bother you?

E x

Thursday 26 October 2017

£1-a-day Food Challenge - Follow Up and "Trucs" of the trade

I intended to write this post months ago. Actually, I did write most of it months ago, but life then got rather busy, as it does, and so I never got round to finishing it. On the basis of better late than never, here it is.

If you read any of my ramblings on my £1-a-day food project and wondered about giving such a thing a go yourself, you might find it helpful. It's a collection of twenty little tips and "trucs" that I found made the going easier. I love the French word "truc" - it's almost the equivalent of the English word "trick" but not quite - more "creative-and-serendipitous-solution-finding" than "get-round-it-by-cheating-solution-finding", although sometimes there's not much, if any, difference.

1 Be ingenious. All the best frugal "trucs" are born of the felicitous partnering of necessity, creative ingenuity and determination. One of the biggest hurdles of the challenge, for me, for example, was that the budget was so tight that it looked set to scupper my tea-drinking completely. Not good news. To circumnavigate this, firstly, I cut back my tea consumption before the project began which was a good start and probably better for my health in the long run too.
Secondly, I found a way of eking out a minuscule quantity of tea by brewing it in my biggest tea-pot, shrouding it in a thick, old-fashioned tea-cosy and leaving it to brew for at least half an hour, before pouring some to drink immediately and the rest straight into a large thermos flask. This gave me several bonus cups of tea to drink later, for the price of one. Of course, it's not that strong a brew but I drink my tea quite weak anyway and it's a good deal better than nothing. Coffee is more expensive, relatively, than tea but, if you are a coffee-lover, you could, in principle, apply the same system. Not exactly rocket science, obviously, but nonetheless not second nature, or not in this household anyway, where we tended to boil up the kettle and reach for a fresh tea bag, every time.

2 Compare and contrast. The website, is a very useful, quick tool to compare prices of different food items across all the main UK supermarkets and identify the cheapest deals. Make sure that when comparing items you are comparing them accurately, weight for weight.

3 Adopt a scientific /mathematical mindset. If you do the challenge the way I did it and use more ingredients than you can buy in one spend of the budget, you need to be able to cost foods by weight and recipes accurately. A pair of digital weighing scales that weighs in 2g increments, or less, is essential for this. As is a calculator! I am sure it's plum obvious to everyone else, but I am an arithmetical numpty and had to sit down and work out the maths carefully: to calculate the cost of any ingredient you divide the price you paid for an item by the weight in which it was sold and then multiply by the weight you are actually using. So if you are using 50g of sugar which cost you 69p per 500g bag, you divide 69 by 500 and then multiply by 50, giving you a figure of 6.9. Round anything above 0.5 up and less than 0.5, round down. (On this basis,  50g sugar cost 7p.) Some you win, some you lose! Be careful not to muddle pounds and pence, as I did on occasion! (I told you I was a numpty!)

4 Plan as for a military operation! Detailed planning was essential, I found. Work out meticulous meal-plans well in advance. Avoid the temptation to skip meals to leave more of the budget for later in the day. The challenge is quite tough and letting yourself get absolutely ravenous and then not being able to eat much is bad psychologically. Probably physiologically too. Better to spread your intake over the day, if you can. And what you certainly wouldn't want to do is find you've blown your budget by midday, leaving a very hungry gap indeed until the next day.

5 Go with the grain of your normal eating pattern. If, like me, you need something to eat around 4.00pm in the afternoon, factor it in. Do you normally not have more for breakfast than a hot drink or a smoothie? Stick with that, if it suits you, but don't skip meals entirely. See 4 above.

6 Use recipes and foods that you know you like and can cook easily. This is not the week to try some new food that you don't know how to cook or that you may really not like. If you think you might like to use a new recipe, or a new cooking technique, it's best to do a dry run in advance and iron out any glitches. I found this very helpful with getting up to speed with the soaking and cooking times for dried beans, for example.

7 Get swapping. The cost of recipes can often be drastically reduced by substituting cheaper ingredients and / or cooking smaller quantities. Cost out recipes that you think you'd like to use, on a piece of paper and look carefully at where the costs are falling most heavily. There may be some surprises. Ask yourself, "Can I use exactly the same ingredients but more cheaply from a different source from usual? Tinned tomatoes, say, from Aldi or Lidl, as opposed to Sainsbug's or Waitrose? Can I substitute an alternative for more expensive ingredients? Pulses, instead of meat, or sugar instead of honey or maple syrup? Can I reduce the overall cost of a dish by changing what I serve with it, really cheap rice, for example, in place of a baked potato? How can I get an intense flavour hit from a small portion?" With this last one, don't immediately think you must reduce seasoning. You may find it more strategic to increase the seasoning, say, in a dish like chilli sin carne, in order to be able to serve smaller portions overall. (Bulk the meal out with rice instead.) Keeping food highly seasoned and well-flavoured was crucial, if small portions were to feel satisfying.

8 Take care over the presentation of your frugal fare and the way you eat it. Our perception of taste and satisfaction in eating is strongly influenced by a lot more than the food itself. So I tried to use nice china and proper cloth napkins. Use any fresh herbs you have growing to garnish dishes or plates - there's nothing more depressing about a frugal meal than it looking like some indiscriminate brown slop, that might be served up in a prison camp. But the herbs aren't just cosmetic - fresh herbs are full of vitamins and minerals that very usefully supplement the challenge's meagre rations and you can grow them for free, or next to nothing, yourself.

9 Eat slowly. I tried not to rush meals and to enjoy every mouthful - it's precious and there isn't much of it on this lark!

10 Dilute stuff. This is a quick and easy "truc" for stretching liquids both in cooking and eating although it does have its limitations. As I mentioned, I diluted milk with water to use in cooking my porridge, scones and muffins on the challenge and I also measured out soya milk for my tea-drinking at the beginning of the day and added water to that too, to make it go further. Boiling water added to soup, fills the bowl (and you) up, if portions look a bit meagre. As I say, it had limitations - too much dilution and stuff tastes "thin" and unappetising as well as losing significant nutritional value, gram for gram.

11 Cultivate opportunism. Keep your eyes peeled for bargains or reduced "yellow sticker" items. In Soviet Russia, where food supplies were erratic at best, and absent at worst, people kept what was known as an "авоська" (avoska) bag, tucked in their pocket. "авось" (avos) means "perhaps", "what if?" or "may be" in Russian. An avoska bag was a "maybe bag", a "just in case bag" so that if you came across a queue forming because suddenly a shop had got in a supply of oranges, or flour, or sugar, or whatever, you could join it forthwith and and not miss the opportunity to acquire whatever was suddenly available after weeks of "deficit".

The bags were string ones, that folded up very small. They were almost all made made by people who, for reasons of disability, were not able to earn their keep by other means.

Making the universally used bags provided a modest, but steady, independent income. A sad consequence of the fall of the Soviet Union and the arrival of the ubiquitous, western, plastic carrier-bag was that these people suddenly found themselves out of work and without any income. A small casualty in the big scheme of things, perhaps, but one that got to me somehow. Happily, plastic, disposable carrier-bags are now personae non gratae everywhere, and we are now all returning to using permanent baskets and shopping bags the world over.

And there's been a heart-warming initiative to revive the avoska bag-makers' jobs again in Russia. Have a read about it here.

12 Grow stuff. Having my cress seedlings, rhubarb from the garden, some foraged blackberries and home-grown raspberries in the freezer, remnants of spinach and sorrel in the vegetable patch, herbs on the windowsill and in the garden made a huge difference to the viability and enjoyment of the challenge. Pick the season for your challenge carefully - fruit is expensive and almost impossible to include unless you grow it yourself or can forage for it. Unless you have a stash of free fruit in your freezer or have dried, or bottled it, winter and early spring will be virtually fruit-free. Doing it in the autumn would be a good deal easier. Autumn also gives you access to cheap potatoes too which would be a big bonus.

13 Know your weeds! Find out what grows wild near you and when, and use it if you can. Always err on the side of caution, if you are not absolutely sure of the identity of any wild food. No point in saving money but poisoning yourself!

14 Choose your carbohydrate. You need to centre meals around a basic carbohydrate in order for meals to be filling. As came up in the comments, one of the distinctive things about my meals is that they were heavily grain-centred. For the simple reason that grains represent one of the cheapest, easily available food-stuffs and the budget won't easily stretch to include big portions of protein, even cheap, plant protein in the form of pulses. Interestingly, potatoes were not a good competitor for cheap grain. I was surprised about that but in part that may be due to doing the challenge in late Spring when my homegrown potatoes were all used up and commercial potato prices are higher than in the autumn.

15 Use your freezer cannily. If you lay your hands on a bargain ingredient and can bung it in the freezer or cook it and freeze it ahead of time, do so. I did this with my thrifty carrot and banana muffins and my homemade tagliatelle because I was anxious that my free, home-grown egg supply would have run out by the time I wanted it, with the bantams all going broody after Easter. I was also very grateful to find a couple of hidden bags at the back of the freezer containing blackberries foraged from the hedgerows last autumn and some raspberries from the garden.

16 Take stock. Get into the habit of making your own vegetable stock from the trimmings of vegetables and fresh herbs. As I indicated earlier, I found that a tightly-lidded plastic container in the fridge keeps vegetable trimmings fresh and useable for two or three days if I can't make the stock straightaway and the finished product is well worth the effort for adding a depth of flavour to otherwise plain dishes. It is also effectively free, apart from the salt. You can freeze what you don't immediately need in plastic containers - old 450ml yoghurt containers work well - and I found it invaluable on the challenge to add to my bean dishes and soups.

17 Lose weight only reluctantly. With smaller portions, cut back or diluted ingredients and few extras, you may find you lose weight. That might be something you are quite pleased about in the short term but in the long term, potentially, it's the beginnings of malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies. I still have some thinking to do to get round this. Possible solutions would be to increase food intake right up to the wire of the £1 limit. Most days I found I had a bit of spare slack that perhaps I should have used up with something high in calories and nutritional value. My advice, for what it is worth, is that combining an attempt to lose weight with doing a £1-a-day food challenge is not a terribly good idea. Essentially the foods you can eat on the challenge are not those you necessarily want to prioritise nutritionally, when trying to lose weight. There is also an uncomfortable psychological mismatch between treasuring every morsel of food because it's a precious life resource and deliberately choosing not to eat, in order to lose weight.

18 Preparation is vital - see 2 above. I began preparations for this challenge about six weeks before starting it and that was none too soon. Swapping over cheaper ingredients for more expensive ones takes time if you are not to waste stuff and cooking everything from scratch is labour-intensive and time-consuming so it's sensible to make life a bit easier and cook items ahead and freeze them - see 15 above. If you are planning months, or even further ahead, you can obviously do more - foraging for, or growing stuff in season and stashing it aside either in the freezer, bottling or drying it, or using it in preserves such as jam or pickles. Be circumspect about the cost of other ingredients in your preserves as they can turn a very frugal make into much less of one. For example if, like me, you tend to use jam sugar with added pectin in it for jam-making, which makes the process of setting easy and hassle-free, be aware that it also sends the cost of a jar of homemade jam rocketing up, as opposed to using plain granulated sugar. Watch for things like the cost of spices, lemons and vinegar too.

19 Get company! Psychologically this isn't the easiest thing in the world to pull off. I found it was OK for the first two or three days but the second half of the challenge was much harder going. Moral support is important and I found that made a big difference. D although not strictly observing every single one of the limitations of the challenge himself, was very supportive and put up with a pretty restricted menu for a week and an intrepid friend in London, to whom I had chuntered about doing this project, bravely undertook to do it in parallel. Comparing notes was fun and made the whole thing more of an adventure and less of a grind. He is an avid coffee-drinker and for the coffee-drinkers among you, be warned, my awful Aldi Earl Grey tea was more than matched by his experience of very cheap, instant coffee replacing beautiful, freshly-ground beans! If you can, pool resources - that can helpfully widen the variety of foods available to you. Blogging about the challenge also helped - it made me accountable because there was a public dimension to it and knowing there were a few kind folk reading my posts and taking the time to comment was wonderful - thank you again so much for that, if you were one of them.

20 Reclaim feasting after fasting! Plan a nice meal to look forward to at the end of the challenge. Having something to look forward to helps with the psychological impact of there not being much to go round. Our forbears, both recent and more distant, were very familiar with "making do" on scant rations and saving up good things to have a periodic feast to celebrate special occasions. These days we seem to blacklist the idea of waiting for anything, by and large, and to have lost the joy of feasting after fasting, either literally or metaphorically but this challenge offers a nice opportunity to rediscover it.

There's a lovely entry in Nella Last's wartime Diary, "Nella Last's War" for Good Friday 1941 in which she talks about preparing a simple Easter picnic*. The picnic includes one of a pair of fruit cakes she had made the previous June "when butter was more plentiful". One cake, she had cut for her husband's and son's birthdays in mid-December 1940 and eked out over Christmas a fortnight later; the other she has preserved for the last nine months, "I wrapped it in grease-proof paper - four separate wrappings - and then tied it and put it in an air-tight tin". No wonder it seems to her husband "perfect cake, in perfect condition". The anticipation and careful saving-up lend the cake, at a remove of seventy-five years, now contained, not in greaseproof paper, but the pages of a paperback, a delicious frisson of enjoyment that you can almost taste, even as a reader. How much more delicious it must have been in reality; long awaited, then savoured, on that Spring afternoon in 1941, in the open air along with "tea, greengage jam in a little pot, brown bread and butter, [and] a little cheese."

* ed. Richard Broad & Suzie Fleming Nella Last's War - The Second World War Diaries of Housewife, 49, (London: Profile Books LTD, 2006), p116

Now, five months after doing the challenge, I am also conscious of some of its longer lasting effects. Some of them have been small and unobtrusive, others a bit more dramatic. I'll write an update on that, may be in due course, but suffice it to say that my shopping, cooking and eating habits seem to have changed quite a bit and more than on just a temporary basis, which I find interesting and a bit surprising, actually.

E x

Wednesday 31 May 2017

The evening after ...

The evening after the six days before...
... bliss!

на здоровье!
To health!

E x

Tuesday 30 May 2017

£1-a-day Food Challenge 2017: Day 6

Today is the last day of my £1-a-day Food Challenge. Quite a relief to see it arrive, I have to say and even more of a relief to see it finishing! And immediately I think that, or say that to myself, I am reminded of how lucky I am to be able to say that and of how many there have been, and are, in various parts of the world who live within these limits long term, or even permanently. Really sobering and there's no way I would have felt that so intensely without the experiential component of trying this challenge myself. As I said in my earlier post here, it would be both arrogant and rash of me to assume that because I've lived on £1-a-day for six days I know what it is like to live below the line. I don't and actually I have to hope that I never will. It's not something to be wished for, in any shape or form. I have found these six days difficult enough, even with all the extra resources that my context has provided me with. 

But do I regret starting on the project? No, I certainly don't. I've learned a huge amount in a way that I neither could, nor would, have done without doing it. It will all need a bit of digesting, (bad pun, sorry!), and reflecting on over the next while. But suffice it to say that I am ending the challenge very consciously grateful for even very ordinary things like the reliability of filled supermarket shelves, the water that gushes cold and clean from my kitchen tap, the fact that my freezer works, that I have a fridge, that tomorrow I do not need to measure and count and scrape every morsel of food I consume, or thin everything with extra water. 

A ration of black bread being weighed for sale during the siege of Leningrad.
The rations were tiny as well as adulterated - I saw one in the Siege Museum, 
in St Petersburg last year, no more than a single 125g slice per person in December 1941.
It's interesting, I think, that in circumstances where people have lived with serious food shortages, their thoughts often drift to better times and meals previously eaten and enjoyed without restraint. And these meals tend not to be special celebration dishes or rare ingredients but everyday things, sometimes very plain things, things that might not sound particularly appetising to someone free from any kind of restriction on the food they can eat. But where hunger is, or has been, a real presence, the wholesome and the everyday become freighted with greatly increased value and are treasured in a new way. 

I haven't experienced the acute hunger that many have but I have had more than a few hungry moments in the last six days. Two accounts of situations, where food has been short, have come to my mind in those moments that have immediately made me sit up and slap down any temptation to abandon the challenge or compromise with it, any more than I can absolutely help. 

I thought I might share them with you here.

One is the account of Elena Mukhina (Lena) who wrote a diary as a teenager during the siege of Leningrad. You can get it on Amazon here. Lena has been called 'The Anne Frank of Leningrad". She was sixteen when the German army invaded the USSR in 1941. Her diary covers the period May 1941 to May 1942 and includes the appalling winter of starvation Leningraders suffered once the city and its food supplies were cut off. The hunger suffered by the population was terrible. All food became scarce and even the meagre bread ration was adulterated. Up to 40% of the ingredients were substituted with dubious alternatives such as bran, oil cake, (made from the compressed husks of cottonseed, after the oil had been extracted), wallpaper paste and wood cellulose. This alarming concoction was supplemented by crows, pigeons, dogs, cats and even cannibalism. People died in their thousands after lingering months of weakness and gradual organ failure. As one siege-survivor put it simply, "Those who ate more survived, those who ate less died." 

A ration card for bread. Leningrad 1941.
Alongside the concerns of exam grades, boyfriend troubles and all the other normal concerns of a 16 year old girl, Lena's diary records the growing grip of hunger and her own and her family's desperate attempts to combat it. Inventive, but horrific, dishes of "bouillon made out of skin" (origin of said skin unspecified) p195, the family cat "our cat kept us alive for a whole ten-day period" p207, flour soup "they don't put any salt in it at all - it's just water thickened with flour" p225 and anonymous "meat jelly" and on a lucky day a "horsemeat rissole" p213. She and her mother dream of better days and even though Lena's fantasy meal is very Russian and some of it unappealing - I am not sure, for instance, about the appeal of crumbled black bread and gingerbread soaked in cottonseed oil - I've read and reread her words this last week and have found they have buoyed me up when the going has felt tough and reminded me that actually I have no idea how lucky I am, the food I have eaten on £1-a-day is a feast in comparison to Lena's rations.

So, Lena's fantasy meal...

"When the war ends and everything's back to normal and we can buy things again, I'm going to buy a kilo of black bread, a kilo of gingerbread and half a litre of cottonseed oil. I'll crumble the bread and the gingerbread, and then pour plenty of oil over the top and mash it all together, then I'll fetch a tablespoon and take great pleasure in eating my fill. Then Mama and I will bake all kinds of pies - with meat, with potato, with cabbage, with grated carrot. And then Mama and I will fry potatoes and will eat them golden and sizzling, straight from the pan. We will eat noodles with smetana [sour cream], pelmeni [the Russian equivalent of tortellini], macaroni with tomato sauce and fried onions, and warm crusty white bread with butter and salami or cheese. The salami will have to be thick enough to really sink your teeth into it when you take a bite. Mama and I will eat buckwheat kasha [porridge] with cold milk, and then the same kasha fried in a pan with onion so that it shines with butter. Finally we will eat hot buttery blinchiki [sweet pancakes] with jam and fat, fluffy olady [puffy buttermilk pancakes]. Dear God, we're going to eat so much we'll frighten ourselves." p154

Lena survives the siege - she manages to get evacuated in the summer of 1942  - but Mama and Aka the elderly family friend they live with are, by then, both dead. 

The other account is not in a book. For Holocaust Memorial Day at the end of January this year the BBC's Antiques Roadshow did a special edition centred around objects of significance saved by survivors of concentration camps. You may have seen it. It was incredibly moving. Most moving of all, I found, was a tiny, shabby teddy bear packed by the mother of a small boy in his suitcase before he boarded one of the Kindertransport trains from Germany to England. The small boy never saw his parents again - they committed suicide rather than face deportation to Auschwitz. The boy and his bear survived however and to see Axel, now nearly ninety, holding this small toy his mother had packed for him nearly eighty years ago and hear him tell the story was one of the most moving things I've encountered in a long time. 

But the account of Axel's teddy bear is not what I am referring to. What I am referring to pertains to one of the survivors who was not individually featured on the programme itself but who was interviewed in a BBC Radio 4 interview on the Today programme beforehand - Gabor Lacko, born in Hungary into a Jewish family, aged thirteen at the time of the Nazi occupation of Hungary in 1944 and forced to wear the yellow star proclaiming his forbidden status. Through a series of fortuitous coincidences, divine providence, or both, he and his family survived the war although his father became separated from the rest of them. Holding the yellow star his mother fashioned for him all those years ago, out of a scrap of cloth in her sewing box, he told the story of the family's reunion in Budapest. The culmination of the reunion was what to most of us is a very prosaic, very ordinary event, "We went to buy some bread, proper bread, nice, fresh, warm bread which we hadn't seen for almost a year. And it was served to us by a man in a white coat and not thrown at us by a Ukrainian servant of the Soviet Reich, made of sawdust." There is a pause in the interview and John Humphreys, audibly touched, comments, "And you smile as you tell me that story!" There is another pause and you can hear Gabor's warm smile in the silence, then he replies, "I smile every time I think of that story! It was great!" 

Good bread made with proper flour, not sawdust, wallpaper paste, or cattle food husks; simple vegetables, pasta; milk; jam - things we take for granted as a matter of course in less straitened times, are actually as precious as anything and this challenge has really made me sit up and think about that and as for wasting them, well, forget it. 

Homemade pasta is very easy to make. Especially if you have a food processor with a dough hook.

Homemade pasta
This quantity seems rather small to me - I would normally make quite a bit more for two people but greed has had to take a back seat pro tem.

150g strong white flour (Waitrose Extra Strong Canadian on special offer a few weeks back at £1.26 per 1.5kg) 13p
1 tsp olive oil (Aldi) 1p
½ tsp salt
3 bantam eggs (about 1½ large ordinary hens' eggs)

To make:
Fit the dough hook into your food processor and whizz the flour and salt to aerate it. Whisk the eggs in a jug and with the motor running, pour the beaten egg in a thin steady stream onto the flour. The mixture will go a bit like breadcrumbs and then bind together in a smooth lump of stretchy dough. You shouldn't need to add any water but you can add a drop or two if you really feel it needs it.

Remove the dough from the food processor and roll out. I have a pasta rolling machine that I was given for my birthday about 25 years ago which makes this an easy and enjoyable job but you can just roll the dough out thinly by hand. The egg in the dough makes it very well behaved and you shouldn't need much flour, if any, to ease the rolling. Once you've rolled out the dough into sheets - roll out about ¼ of the dough at a time - you can cut it into whatever shapes you want. I like a basic tagliatelle for pesto but you can cut thinner tagliolini, linguini or wider pappardelle, if you prefer. What you must do is hang your cut strips up to dry before storing, otherwise the strips have a nasty habit of clumping irrevocably together. I have a pasta-drying rack gizmo which works very well but you can improvise using a (wiped clean) radiator rack or a piece of washing line over which you can hang your beautiful handmade tagliatelle. Admire your handiwork for a while(!) and then either cook the pasta or I find it best to freeze it, if I am not going to use it straight away.

Total cost 14p. Enough (just about) for two people at 7p each.

I love pesto but sadly I can't make the entirely authentic version as garlic really does not agree with me any more. I love it enough to make it without the garlic and it's still pretty good. This version is not just missing the garlic, it's missing one or two other fundamentals as well. There is some basil in it but not nearly as much as there should be. My annual basil forest in the greenhouse is doing well but it's nowhere near harvesting in pesto quantity yet. There is some Parmesan - the real stuff too, grated from a hunk, but not as much as there should be and I've had to substitute toasted breadcrumbs for the pinenuts. That being said, spooned on top of homemade pasta, it's extremely good. I shall be making it again, food challenge, or no food challenge.

Thrifty wild herb pesto

You need:
a big bunch (56g to be precise is what I used here) of greens and herbs from the garden, whatever you can find basically. I used some spinach, some dandelion leaves, oregano, parsley as well as as much basil as I could cut from my very frugal basil plant and the baby basil seedlings in the greenhouse without damaging the plants irrevocably.

1 tsp salt 1p
20g freshly grated Parmesan (Aldi) 26p
1 slice thrifty homemade wholemeal bread* baked at 170 C for about 30-40 mins until crisp and dark brown but not burnt, whizzed to crumbs 1p
* This is basically my thrifty seeded roll recipe without the seeds and only a teaspoon of milk powder, baked in a loaf tin and sliced into 15 slices.

100ml Puglian olive oil (Aldi) 64p

To make:
Put the greens and herbs with the salt in the food processor and blitz to a thick green purée. With the motor running pour in the oil in a thin steady stream. Add the Parmesan, toasted crumbs and whizz briefly to incorporate. Spoon the pesto out into a clean jar and refrigerate if not using immediately. Get it out of the fridge in plenty of time before serving. Pesto is better not served fridge cold - the flavours become muted once chilled and it chills the pasta down too. Obviously, if garlic agrees with you, include a clove, peeled and roughly chopped along with the greens.

Total cost 92p. Judiciously spooned out, it makes 6 portions, each costing 15p.

Away from constraints of the challenge I would serve this more generously in which case it might serve 4 rather than 6.

Total cost for today only 90p.

So the totals for the six days of the challenge from beginning to end are as follows:

And in addition to  all my personal reflections and ramblings, I have today sent the biggest donation I can muster to The Hunger Project UK because, after all, just changing my own mindset won't feed those who tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after, will still only have £1 or the equivalent to live on for all their food and drink. 

Thank you so very much for your company and encouragement this last week - it's made the world of difference. There will be no more long posts for a while (you may be relieved to hear!) but I may post a single pic tomorrow. I'll leave you to guess what it might be!

Sending a hug to all of you who have been so kind as to read and / or comment here in the last little while.

E x

Monday 29 May 2017

£1-a-day Food Challenge 2017: Day 5

There's been a lot of watering down and out in the last five days - watering down the soya milk I have in my tea, watering down the tea itself, watering out milk bottles and soya milk cartons, watering down milk for cooking and baking, watering out tins and cartons of tomatoes and passata, watering down soup, watering down and out jugs of whey etc, etc. Diluting stuff in order to make small volumes of ingredients go further. Not a joyful part of the project, for the most part. You'd think that where the volume of liquid is the same, it might not matter much if it's diluted heavily but it does. With some things more than others, of course. Foods taste "thinner"; obviously their nutritional value is less too and after a few days, you do notice it. 

One of the things that I will appreciate most at the end of this challenge is being able to go back to having unwatered-down milk, soya milk and soup. I will, however, continue to wash out milk bottles and tomato tins and use the results, where it genuinely doesn't make much difference, so that nothing is wasted. In fact I've always done that with tins of tomatoes but the principle, judiciously applied, can be extended, I feel, to other containers so long as you don't use too much water. Do you wash things down and out with water and use the results in cooking? 

The brown jug in the pic is my soya milk jug in which I carefully measure out the amount I can have in my tea each day on the challenge. I then add quite a bit of extra water, give it a good stir and know that I can use that freely, but no more, each day. It's not a lot but it stretches out the maximum of what the budget permits. I tend to leave the jug out, as it's only a day's worth and it's convenient to have it to hand. But now that the weather has warmed up significantly, the kitchen has had a stream of unwanted pesky fly visitors. It's unavoidable, living in the country. I do not like flies. Their personal hygiene is atrocious and their habits disgusting - I certainly don't want them alighting on the lip of my jug or taking a quick dip in my soya milk. 

The jug needs covering, obviously, but I have given up buying cling film. It's not good for the environment and I always end up with the box falling to pieces before the roll of film is anywhere near finishing, with that feeble, serrated strip that you're supposed to tear the film against, hanging off at a drunken angle and being no use at all. Very annoying when you are in a hurry; (which I usually am). So I've taken to using old china saucers and odd plates to cover bowls and basins. These work well as an alternative to plastic film. Jugs, however, have a hilly contour around their perimeter, which is not friendly to balancing a china saucer upon. So I took a leaf out of the Victorians' answer-book to pesky flies and made a beaded jug-cover. It may look a bit twee and old-fashioned, but never mind that, it's not there as an aesthetic piece, it's there to do a very practical job and it's doing it perfectly. 

I was too lazy and in too much of a hurry to crochet the whole thing but in my kitchen drawer were two lacy circles of fabric that had once covered little pots of orange conserve given out as wedding favours - as delightful an idea as I think I've come across as far as wedding favours go. 

I found a pattern for a beaded crochet doily-edging, adapted it quite significantly, to simplify it and make it fit and voilà! - one highly effective jug-cover that deters all winged invaders. It's easy to wash through by hand, in some hot soapy water, at the end of the day; I hang it up up overnight and it's dry again by morning. The beads I had in my sewing box for some years and have been waiting for a happy use - I'm rather pleased that they've found one.  The watery soya milk does not exactly fill me (or my tea) with joy but using this old French jug my grandparents bought in France well over half a century ago and making this thrifty little solution to my fly problem gives me no little delight. I know... tiny things etc etc! 

Same again! Enough said!

Green split pea and wild green soup

15ml olive oil (Aldi) 10p
1 small red onion, peeled and chopped (Aldi) 7p
3 sticks celery, washed, trimmed and chopped (Aldi) 22p
200g green split peas (Sainsbury's) 28p
1.5 litres homemade vegetable stock (as Day 1) 3p
a large colanderful of greens (wild and cultivated from the garden) I used some bolted spinach left over from last year, lovage, dandelion, Jack-by-the-Hedge, oregano, chives & parsley

To make:
Heat the oil in the base of a pressure cooker and cook the onion and celery for a few minutes. Season with black pepper and add the stock and split peas. Bring to the boil and cook under pressure for 7 minutes.

Release the pressure and stir in the greens which will immediately wilt and collapse down in a bright green mass. Remove from the heat and allow to cool a little. Whizz to a thick, bright green purée in a blender. Serve immediately or cool and reheat as required. Try not to reheat for too long or the vivid green colour will fade.

Total cost 69p.   Makes 5 portions, each costing 14p.

Thrifty Carrot and Banana Muffins

250g carrots, peeled (Aldi) (You can save the peelings for stock-making) 11p
2 large ripe bananas, peeled (Aldi) 24p
170ml sunflower oil (Aldi) 19p
170g light soft brown sugar (Aldi) 23p
2 dsps (40g) honey (Aldi) 11p
280g white self-raising flour (Aldi) 8p
1 tsp baking powder (Waitrose) 2p
1 tsp mixed spice (Aldi) 2p
6 bantam eggs (or use 3 large ordinary hens' eggs)
70g raisins (Aldi) 18p

Preheat the oven to 190 C. Coarsely grate the carrots into a large bowl and set aside. Put the bananas, oil, soft brown sugar and honey into the food processor and whizz until smooth. Add the eggs, flour and mixed spice and whizz again to make a smooth batter. Scrape and pour the batter into the bowl containing the grated carrot. Add the raisins and gently fold the mixture together with a large spoon. Spoon the mixture into about 14 paper muffin cases and bake for about 25 minutes until well-risen and golden. Cool in the tin. These freeze beautifully.

Total cost £1.18. Makes 14 muffins ie 8p each.

In other news, we have also been preparing to feed the garden as well as ourselves on less than £1-a-day and making gallons of comfrey tea. D has cut down a vast load of the comfrey taking over the flowerbeds and left it to wilt overnight in the wheelbarrow.

Today we spent a happy Bank Holiday afternoon stuffing it into old, jute potato-sacks (as you do!)

These we then lowered into a ¾ filled, small, bargain water butt bought for the purpose at the local garden centre, (at a drastically reduced price, because it had faded, while on display). The butt has been prudently placed as far away from the house as possible, in a secluded corner, by the woodpile where, hopefully, the only ones to be assailed by any aroma of decomposition will be the huge, rugby-boot-wearing spiders who lurk among the logs and I don't mind if they are seriously offended and take themselves elsewhere (although not into the house obviously!)

In a few weeks' time we will turn on the tap at the bottom and out should come a very rich, (if smelly), liquid fertiliser to feed the vegetables and various pots. The smell is, apparently, the only drawback. The reason for putting the comfrey into the jute sacks rather than simply adding it loose to the butt is because otherwise the leaves can block the tap and then, as the website, where we found instructions for preparing comfrey tea, tells you happily, "you have to lower your watering can into the stinky barrel" to extract it. Hmm!

I have suggested hopefully to D that when it comes to removing the comfrey "tea bags" and emptying out their putrid contents, that particular job has his name on it, not mine! So far, bless him, he has not objected but we'll see how bad the stinkiness gets! It's reputed to be pretty bad but the fertiliser itself is second to none, as comfrey puts down very long roots that extract nitrogen and other plant goodies from deep below the soil surface that shorter roots never reach and comfrey tea is meant to be the plant equivalent of an all-in-one health tonic.

Nearly at the end of the challenge and the cupboard is almost bare.

Thank you for reading my rather repetitive posts these last few days - I am aware they are somewhat esoteric, not to say eccentric! Only one more at the end of tomorrow's final day and then there will be a breathing space, I think, for a bit!

E x