Friday, 19 August 2016

What's been Occurring in August

It has been a soul-gratingly bad spell at work recently. I have been working hard on building my resilience and emotional strength. This failed miserably last Monday when I ended up drowning my sorrows at the pub - on a Monday!

On Tuesday, I pulled myself out for a late evening walk with the dog. I have been practicing mindfulness recently, inspired by this life changing book, and used the walk as an opportunity to be mindful in a bid to master my whirring brain.

I tried to just let my bad thoughts come and go and remember that a thought is just a thought -  not necessarily the truth - and to always come back to the moment. I forced myself to really notice what was around me - the cows hurrying to meet the farmer; the splash of little creatures in the disused canal; the warm air; the light shining through the trees.

I also tried hard to turn the negative thoughts into positive ones and to see the opportunities to learn and grow. I would have scoffed at the thought of anything positive coming out of a shitty week like this six months ago, but I dug deep and did come back home feeling better about life. I don't meditate as such, only managing five minutes once or twice - it's SO hard! But I think the benefits may very well be worth it, so again, I will persevere.

The wedding preparations are eclipsing everything at the moment and last weekend was my hen do. Downing shots in a cheap plastic tiara just didn't appeal, so myself and 6 of my closest friends spent a weekend in a wooden ark, in the middle of the deepest Welsh countryside.

This is my favourite place on earth. There is no wifi signal and the scenery is amazing. Life just slows down - we ate cheese and drank our way through plenty of wine, with the occasional dog walk - utter bliss! Everyone agreed that without wifi it was such a relief not to be entirely glued to our phones, checking them all the time. Definitely a lesson to be learned there.

I have also bought some clothes this week - rare for me. As I get firmly into my 30's I feel like I understand my style so much better, possibly even for the first time. It seems to mainly revolve around involve shapeless linen, leather sandals and silver jewellery! I have totally fallen in love with TOAST. Their clothes are just so simple - sort of Amish chic which definitely isn't 'trendy' but almost outside of fashion and therefore, somehow stylish in it's own way!

I bought this linen tunic, which I will wear with jeans and sandals. With Autumn on the way I don't think I can resist this cardigan for long either - gorgeous berry shades are my nemesis.

So, as this mixed fortnight draws to a close, I am home alone this Friday night with just the little dog for company. The weather has turned a little and we are facing a wet spell, so not much chance of digging the plot, which I had been looking forward to.

I fancied a bit of a treat for my Friday night dinner, so cooked myself a Vietnamese Noodle Pho (a noodle soup)  from Gwyneth Paltrow's It's All Easy cookbook.

It was fantastic - hot, sour, spicy and sweet thanks to the basil.

I know, I know - roll eyes, celebrity cookbook. I am glad I gave it a chance though - admittedly, there are lots of carefully engineered shots of GP prancing around in designer clothes in beautiful places. But sometimes you need to try something different (read: you can't just cook Nigel Slater recipes forever). I might try the black bean Mexican soup on Sunday.

Have a great weekend, whatever you are doing.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

A Part-Time Sourdough Baker

I imagine that the incredibly long timescales involved in making a sourdough loaf was convenient for the medieval housewife. Leaving four or five hours between each stage would leave ample time for milking cows, rustling up a wicker basket, laying a new fire out etc.

However, when you work full time and want bread in the week, it is a bit of a pain. I usually don't bake sourdough during the week, because we try not to eat bread too much for diet reasons. But what normally happens is that we cave in and end up with a cheapo cardboard loaf from the supermarket - bad on both counts!

So, I am facing reality and baking in the week on the basis that if we are going to eat bread, I want it to be my lovely sourdough. I imagine it is healthier than the shop bought stuff, as I do not add sugar or rising agents. Also, the dough has plenty of time to ferment, which I gather means it is easier to digest. And, it is much cheaper to make your own - our Farm Shop charges £3.60 for a sourdough loaf.

BUT - it requires a bit of logistical shuffling to fit this around a full time job.

So... the night before, take your starter (I use this recipe) and mix with some new flour and a little warm water to make a 'sponge'. This is basically a watery dough mixture which will use the yeast you have grown in your starter to feed on the fresh flour and multiply, amplifying the effect. May as well use a huge bowl, as you will be adding to it.

Leave this overnight, somewhere warm ish, covered in cling-film or in a back bin bag, so that it doesn't dry out. Next day, in the morning, add more flour, salt and olive oil to the sponge, so that it becomes firm. Eventually you will be able to roll it into a dough ball.

Now, you can knead. After watching my bread machine in action, I assumed for a long time that kneading bread was a bit like rolling a football around a table. But it isn't, it is much more of a streeeeetch-turn-turn-streeeeetch kind of action. Literally dragging the bread across the kneading surface until it is at the point of coming apart, then roll it together, turn it and do it again. What you want is to produce long stretched gluten fibres that can accommodate the bubbles of carbon dioxide that the yeast will give off as it consumes the sugar in the flour.

I do this on a thoroughly cleaned draining board as we have waxed wooden worktops. Try and last for ten minutes - if I am honest, I usually only manage about 7-8. But after a while, you will see the dough become shiny and silky, and at this point I usually stop. If you can carry on for a whole episode of the Archers, that is about perfect!

Put back in the bowl and bin bag, go to work. You could leave it a whole day, but I come home at lunchtime. Punch the air out of the dough, leaving it flat again. Return to bowl to rise once more.

Then, that evening, you need to prove. This is a special word for what really means 'put in a tin and leave to rise for the final time'. As sourdough is traditionally a bun shape, I bought a proving basket, a nice lightweight job with a swirly pattern in the weave, which makes the dough look pretty - but any bowl will do.

Flour it well to stop the dough sticking and put the dough in. Back in the bin bag it goes, somewhere warm for about five hours. On Friday evening, at about 11pm, I bake my loaf. Tip it out of the proving container (or skip this step if it went straight into a loaf tin) veeeery gently, so that you don't squash it - or you may end up with a Frisbee shaped loaf.

Bung in a hot oven (as high as it will go) for ten minutes, then turn down to 200 degrees and finish for about 25 mins.

If it is hollow sounding when you tap the bottom, it is done. Leave to cool overnight and enjoy in the morning!

I love this routine. I also love having my own loaf. We don't waste it, and every slice is precious. Because it is so long coming, we don't gobble it down thoughtlessly either, which is good for our waistlines. More than anything else though, I like the fact that it is mine - not the product of some massive faceless corporation and not made for profit, at the expense of care or quality.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Join Me For a Summer Evening Run

The seasons move so quickly that I am determined to make sure I soak it all up while I can. I went for a short run this evening in the lanes where we live, once it had cooled down enough to be comfortable.

This was 7.30pm - the light was so beautiful and the shadows really deep. I prefer off-road running - it's much cooler and the varied terrain is just more interesting.

I did a bit of a tour of the hedgerows looking for some promising foraging finds. Apart from sloes and blackberries, there wasn't a lot to be had. I need some damsons for chutney - the search continues.

Someone else was on the look out for forage too...

I recon the blackberries are a month away yet.

Just beautiful soaking up all that green.

It hasn't rained for a long time, and the earth is parched where the cows have been.

I was pleased that apart from the cost of the manure, I didn't spend a penny, yet it was a wonderful weekend in the late summer sun.

A Weekend of Backbreaking Progress

This weekend, very excitingly  I cut the first turf on what will become our soft fruit bed.

Our patch has been under turf for a long time and needs some nourishment, so the first step was to order some manure. I found a local farmer who delivered a load on Saturday morning, for the bargainous sum of £30. I have to say I was very impressed with his reversing-around-a-corner skills with a tractor and trailer into our narrow driveway, dropping it pretty precisely onto a tarp.


It isn’t the most amazing quality – it is farmyard manure (so cows, not horses) cleared out of the cow barns over the winter. Although it is dark and rich, there is still recognisable straw in some parts, which is high in carbon.
Generally this is bad, because decomposer organisms need a 25:1 balance of carbon to nitrogen to break organic material down, so as they work on the straw, they burn through any nitrogen in the soil, potentially depleting it.

But, there is also a lot of (lets face it) poo and wee in there, which is nitrogen rich. I am hoping this balances things out a bit. In any case, it has a good five months before I intend to plant anything in the new bed, so hopefully it will be nicely broken down by then.

Which brings me to…the double digging. I have a confession to make: My name is Bonnie and I am a sadist. I LOVE double digging. Even better when there is a thick layer of turf to be chewed up and destroyed. No, seriously!
Not only is it fantastic upper body exercise, which, when you have a sleeveless wedding dress and arms a little on the large side, is no bad thing. But it is oddly meditative and SO satisfying. You can just think your thoughts in the fresh air, plodding forward towards your goal.
I started by removing a trench and depositing the soil somewhere else for now.


Then, I loosened the clay subsoil with a fork to try and improve aeration and drainage. If I had it, I would have added some bone meal for long-term nutrient release. I will get some this week.

Then the turf from the next row went in, grass side down. This is to kill the grass (hopefully!). The top layer of most soil is where the good stuff is – as the organic matter (years of moss and grass cuttings) has broken down on the surface and begun to be pulled down by the worms. So I was loathe to remove it – this would also mean a lot of extra lugging around.

So, I decided to upend the turf into the previous trench, thus starving it of light and retaining the goodness.


On top of this went a thick layer of manure, and a further layer of soil to expose the subsoil in the following trench. I am hoping that this will be enough to starve the turf of light and therefore kill it. We all know that grass is tenacious, so this could go terribly wrong, and I could be faced with the job of weeding it out later in the season – we shall see. If the worst comes to the worst, I will put the chickens on it and let them do the job.


There is still much to do and the process reminds me a bit of a loading bar on an internet browser – progressing very slowly. But it was satisfying to leave this bit (which took about two and a half hours) nicely dug. I shall try and squeeze in an hour or so a night between now and the wedding in four weeks time.  By then I should have nicely toned and brown arms, as well as a soft fruit patch ready to go!