Recent Projects

My husband has been travelling quite a bit as of late which usually gives me a chance to catch up on some reading.  However, while putting fresh sheets on my bed today the most recent pile of books got knocked off their various perches on and around my bedside table.  The ensuing mess made for a good visual of, “oh dear, if anyone sees this they will think I have really gone off my rocker” moment.  So, after a quick giggle, I thought I would share…

It all started innocently enough with a primer on building with straw bales in the UK.  I was aware that this was a more widely accepted and understood means of eco building in the US, but British building regulation can be positively Byzantine and I wanted to get a clearer picture on how it would work over here.

For those of you that have zero idea what I am talking about, you can build a small to very complicated structure using bales of hay (yep, really).  You can either just stack the bales like giant bricks, securing them with wooden stakes (as metal would gather condensation), or you can build a wooden/ timber frame for your house and infill the spaces with the bales of hay.  The whole shebang gets a coating of lime based stucco/ harling/ parging both inside and out and viola  – you have a super-insulated house for cool summers and cosy winters.  Or cosy summers as the case may be over here.

But my curiosity of  how to build a straw bale for the eco home than led me to start visiting plots of land for sale where I could begin such a project.  And that’s when things began to go off the rails.

Many of the plots for sale in our price range are abandon farms, decommissioned forest areas or just really, really remote.  As the cost and logistics of bringing mains water and electricity are likely to surpass the overall budget for the eco build – and isn’t the whole idea to reduce dependency on those very systems – I thought I better brush up on my basic knowledge of wind mills, solar panels, micro hydro options and composting toilets.

It was daunting to say the least.  Everyone featured in this book was just a tad (read a whole lot of) fringe for my tastes.  I think I may have actually hugged my combi-boiler in appreciation of my central heating when I finished.  Regardless, even if I personally don’t want to squat and shiver in a yurt well into my dotage, there were some elements that were really interesting.  I just needed a bit more…gourmet and a little less hermit-like (and furry) case studies.

Mothers who have no time for themselves and a pocketful of book gift certificates about to expire should NOT be let loose in a mall 15 minutes before closing time.  Without really knowing what I was looking for and having annoyed employees shutting lights around me in punishment for ruining their early closing, I grabbed this next beauty.  Written by a  father and son team who work a small holding farm part-time, I was feeling hopeful after a quick flip-through.   I spotted instructions on how to make butter, cheese and most importantly elderflower champagne.  This appeared to be more up my street.

It was very organised and informative with lots of helpful pictures, but really I don’t think having to single-handedly dispose of a turkey by stuffing a traffic cone on its head was really what I had in mind for my next chapter of life.  So in a rare burst of realism I thought that maybe I needed to scale things back,  short-term only of course.

After reading just how much flaming work it would be to constantly manage recycled truck or submarine batteries just to keep the lights on, and then to have to build, grow and/or kill everything around me, I though maybe learning how to “put up” or “can” might be a good winter project instead.

My palette is feeling like the grasshopper in the Aesop’s Fable who danced all summer while the busy ant was packing away stores for the winter.  When I open my cupboards lately I feel a great lack of inspiration having not spent the growing season making  jams, chutneys, and dilly beans.  That feeling, coupled with the shocking price increases on fresh fruits and vegetables (£4 or $6.50 for a small tub/punnet of strawberries) that winter always brings – set me on a mission to learn the basics of at home food storage and maybe even plant a small patch of peppers and tomatoes next spring.

One small glitch is that I have absolutely no idea what I am doing and did not even grow up witnessing a Granny go through the process (but she did have a cellar full of impressive jars I can tell you that).  So on the great authority of my friend-in-law Jess I purchased this home canning or bottling kit.  Now, I like to think I am pretty snappy in the kitchen but I will be honest with you and say that these just about  looked like veterinary obstetrics tools to me so unfamiliar were they to my eyes.

So it was with great relief that I prized this very informative slip of paper from the bottom of the box, so I could at least know what these things were called and to what purpose I should apply them.  Magnetic lid lifter…who’d a thunk?

I am now ready to roll and will be experimenting with hot pepper jelly for Christmas gifts, my own dill pickles to properly complement my left-overs sandwich from Thanksgiving and maybe, just maybe I can finally reverse engineer my B&G’s Sandwich Spread for sublime homemade Italian subs.  And as I continue to search for a suitable plot of land and read about passive solar gain from the comfort of my centrally heated house, I will take a few new steps down the road to preserving and maybe even growing some of my own food.

Wish me luck!



Comments (1)

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  1. jess says:

    you are so inspiringly thorough, jean – i tend to just jump in, have to believe your approach results in far less mishaps. and “friend-in-law” LOVE it! fab, like you.

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