Wednesday, March 16

Losing the Plot

I decided some months ago to give up my allotment - it was becoming more and more of a chore, the plot was too big and I often hadn't the time or energy to work it all, and the last two springs the weather, ill-health or just general busyness meant that I got off to a bad start.  But the real tipping point was vandalism.  Despite being at the "safer" end of the site, my shed was broken into several times - tools were stolen (though later dumped elsewhere on the site - no doubt after being used to damage someone else's plot), but mostly they just trashed the place, trampling plants and fences and throwing things about.  After the second time it happened I spent every walk or ride up to the site worrying about what I would find, and something that should have been all about relaxation was suddenly a huge cause of stress.

Having realised that if I was going to hand back my plot I'd have to clear out the shed and remove any plants I wanted to keep, Mr. B. and I headed up there on Monday afternoon - only to find the worst vandal attack yet: the waterbutt tipped over, someone else's spade dumped in one of the beds and every pane of glass in the shed and coldframe smashed.  There was much swearing - the pointlessness of it absolutely enraged me - but by the time I got home again I just wanted to cry.  I can't help but despair of a society where people have so little regard for each other that they will destroy property purely for their own amusement (nothing was taken, so I can't think why else anyone would have done it.)

I have carried home my tools, and the fruit trees my grandparents bought me for my birthday, and the herbs I grew from cuttings from my dad's garden, and after this week I won't be going back there.  And after this week, I'll be glad of that.

It is not my intention to put anyone off allotment gardening with this post - this is just my experience.  I hope - and expect - that the vast majority of allotment holders have a far more positive experience than this.  Indeed, I've had some wonderful times on my plot, it was my bolt-hole, my little piece of green when I lived in the centre of the city, and I'm sure it saved my sanity on more than one occasion!

Sunday, March 13

Giving up Rubbish for Lent

I always try to live as green a life as I can, and I've long been a fan of The Rubbish Diet blog - however, my own rubbish diet has slipped a little in recent months and I needed a bit of a kick up the bum to get going again.  So I've decided that, along with the rubbishy part of my actual diet (takeaways and ready-meals) I'm giving up throwing things away for Lent.  The lovely Karen over at The Rubbish Diet invited me to write a guest-post for her, which you can read here (and hello if you're joining me having read Karen's blog!)

I think I can do this - we're lucky enough to have pretty decent recycling facilities in York, and my new composter means I needn't put any food waste in the bin, but there are a few things I think I might have to throw away - unless anyone has any brilliant ideas!

  • Bottle tops - while the council collects bottles and jars for recycling, they don't take the lids.  Work is collecting milk bottle tops for a local charity, but what do I do with the ones that come off peanut-butter jars and bottles of beer?
  • Food wrappers - I usually stuff a cereal bar of some sort in my back pocket when I go out on the bike, and when I get home the wrapper goes in the bin.  Most of them are plastic, but some are foil-lined as well.  Can the plain plastic ones go for recycling with my old plastic bags?  Does anyone do cereal or energy bars in fully biodegradable wrappers?  Butter wrappers are an issue, too. Marks and Spencer's organic butter used to come in a paper wrapper but they changed to a foil laminate last year.
  • Feminine hygiene products - I've yet to make the big leap to Mooncup or washable liners, and don't see myself doing so imminently.
  • Plastic tubs - the cutting out of ready-meals & takeaways should minimise the number of these coming into the house, but the odd one will still sneak in - I usually get through at least one carton of crème fraîche a week, for example.
  • Blister-packs - the pain relief I use for my arthritis comes in blister-packs, and I don't know if I can get alternative packaging without getting the tablets on prescription (which is about four times more expensive!)
I shall try to update weekly on my progress - but in the meantime, wish me luck!

    Wednesday, March 9

    The Green Johanna

    Thanks to my voluntary work with York Rotters, I recently took delivery of a Green Johanna compost bin to try out.  The GJ is not your standard garden composter - it is a hot composter, and also designed to be rodent-resistant*, meaning that it is suitable for composting all types of food and garden waste - yes, including cooked food and meat and fish.  Having struggled with Bokashi composting in the past, but not wanting to throw our occasional cooked leftovers or chicken carcases in the bin (all else aside, with fortnightly collections the bin becomes horribly smelly) this sounded perfect.

    The instructions weren't terribly clear - but once I got the box open it was a simple enough process to put the thing together, just a matter of clearing a suitable patch of ground - the instructions specify that the composter should be placed directly onto soil, in a shady spot so that it doesn't overheat in summer (it was designed for year-round use in Sweden, so the average British winter shouldn't trouble it) then stacking the segments in the correct order.

    It even comes with a stirring device!

    With this little area between my bird feeders and bike shed cleared (nothing grows there anyway, it's too shady for most plants) I picked a spot for the base-plate and started stacking.  The Green Johanna goes together a bit like Lego, and screws are provided to make it all a bit more permanent.  Unfortunately, on mine none of the screw-holes quite matched up so I didn't bother - perhaps when I've a little more time on my hands I'll drill some new pilot-holes and fasten it all together.

    It's pretty imposing when it's built up, so I'm glad I tucked it away behind the wall!

    The last step of setting up is to prepare the Green Johanna for your kitchen and garden waste.  In order for air to circulate well the bottom 10 to 20cm needs to be filled with twiggy material - our hard winter has provided well for this, and I topped it off with my dried out Valentine's bouquet!  The next layer needs to be green garden waste - the instructions suggest grass-clippings, but as we've yet to mow the lawn this year I made do with as many weeds as I could pull up from the garden.  A third layer, of garden soil or well-rotted compost, is needed to add the micro-organisms that will do all the hard work for you, then you're ready to add your first kitchen scraps or garden waste proper!

    Super-simple, and now I need never throw food in the bin again!

    * The manufacturers claim that it is 100% rodent-proof, I am naturally cynical of such claims, having seen what rats can chew through if they've a mind to!

    Mrs B's Patented Cold-cure

    Following Sunday's ride, several of us seem to be suffering with colds.  This soup is my stand-by recipe for when I'm feeling rotten.  It's fresh, tasty, soothing, warming AND has antibacterial & antiviral ingredients - everything the cold-ridden body needs.  It's also super-easy to make!

    Carrot, Ginger and Lime soup

    A little oil
    A couple of small onions
    A thumb-sized piece of root ginger
    A clove or two of garlic (depending on how sociable you need to be afterwards!)
    A pound or so of carrots
    2 tbsp rice
    Real chicken stock (you can use veg if you prefer, but chicken broth has been shown to have anti-viral properties so is perfect when you're feeling ill)
    A lime

    Peel & roughly chop all the veg (you don't need to be too perfectionist here as the soup will be blended later) and gently fry the onion, garlic and ginger, adding a splash of water if they look like browning before they are properly soft.  Add the carrots, rice (it's there as a thickener - you could use a small potato instead if you prefer) and enough stock to cover generously and leave to simmer until the carrots are thoroughly cooked.  Blend to a smooth purée, stir in the juice of the lime and serve in big bowls while wrapped in your favourite blanket on the sofa.

    Tuesday, March 8

    One chicken, four meals

    On Saturday morning, as usual, I took my prospective Sunday dinner out of the freezer - on this occasion a whopper of a chicken from Swillington Farm.  My intention was to roast it when I got back from Skipton, but my late return and lack of appetite after such a hard ride meant that it was left in the fridge for Monday's supper instead.

    Come Monday, I got so caught up in other things that I didn't get into the kitchen until half past seven - far too late to start roasting a bird that big (it was over 5lb, so a good couple of hours cooking & resting time, never mind the preheating of the oven.)  I did, however, have an idea.  Our post-ride café in Skipton had, in classic greasy-spoon style, laminated cards pinned on the wall advertising the daily specials, one of which was smothered chicken - described as chicken cooked with bacon and barbecue sauce, topped with melted cheese.  It sounded good, but a little over-indulgent.  I jointed my chicken, had a bit of a ponder, and a rummage in the pantry, and came up with this:

     Barbecue-style braised chicken for a cold winter night

    A little oil
    1 chicken, jointed into breast & leg portions (the carcase can go in the stock-pot - there shall be soup on Wednesday!)
    5 slices of salami (about the thickness of a pound coin) sliced into matchsticks (alternatively, a couple of rashers-worth of smoked bacon lardons)
    1 large onion, sliced
    half a jar of grilled peppers, drained of their oil
    2 tbsp balsamic or sherry vinegar (I buy big bottles of Aspalls balsamic for cooking)
    2 cups tomato passata (or a tin of chopped tomatoes)
    1 cup chicken stock

    Preheat the oven to 190 degrees.  Heat the oil in a large frying or sauté pan, brown the chicken portions on both sides and remove them to a plate while you prepare the sauce.  In the same pan (adding a touch more oil if you need it - though you probably won't) gently fry the onions, adding the salami and peppers once they begin to soften.  Once the salami has turned golden, turn the heat to its lowest setting, deglaze the pan with the vinegar, add the passata and stock and stir together until hot.  Pour the sauce into a baking dish big enough to hold the chicken pieces, dip the chicken into the sauce skin-side down then arrange it skin-side up on top of the sauce.  Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, basting the top of the chicken pieces once or twice.

    Serve with something starchy to soak up the excess sauce (I used couscous because it's so ridiculously quick and easy to prepare, but potatoes in almost any form, pasta or rice would do nicely too, even a chunk of nice bread) and something green, because it's good for you!

    As there are only two of us, I made this with the intention of having some leftovers - lunch today was a sandwich of thinly sliced chicken, with mayo on one side and swedish dill-mustard sauce on the other (and was very delicious) and tonight's supper will be my take on our favourite takeaway pizza (The James Whisky Night Special, No.21) - I'll reduce down the remaining sauce to pizza-topping consistency, add slices of the chicken and some mozzarella and a last drizzle of sauce on top before baking.  And on that note, I should go & mix up some dough!

    Monday, March 7

    The Great Up North Twitter Ride!

    Rich. Best riding buddy a girl could ask for!

    A couple of months ago I was chatting to Lou and Rich on Twitter, when an idea was born - a group ride, somewhere between York & Lancaster.  A date was set, our favourite tweeters were invited, a route suggested (thanks, Kat!) and at last, yesterday, the day came!  Ten of us converged on Skipton around ten o'clock on a chilly, grey Sunday morning, and after much coffee we rolled out of town.  There was a small problem, however - having all agreed that a flat route was needed so we could all stay together and keep it sociable, the first turn out of the car park led us onto what looked to me like a vertical wall!   

    It turned out to be the first of many - in fact, the first of 17 miles of hills.  I'm no hill-climber - I live, and ride, in the flatlands of the Vale of York, where I will always have at least five miles in my legs before I get to anything bigger than a railway bridge.  The first couple of hills hurt quite a lot, but by the time I got to the third my chest was giving me more trouble than my legs - my lungs seemed to be shrinking, not expanding, with every breath.  Pretty soon I was coughing every time I had to up my efforts, and by the time we reached our café stop in Grassington (having got off the bike and walked up at least three climbs) I was wheezing almost constantly.

    The café we chose was a good one - Café Maison towards the top of Main St.  They welcomed the ten of us - and our bikes - with open arms, set us up for the onward journey with tea, coffee and extremely generous slices of cake - my carrot cake was moist & delicious, with exactly the right proportion of cream-cheese icing to cake, and the coffee and walnut cake also got rave reviews.  When we set out again we decided to split into two groups, the faster riders taking a detour via Kettlewell while we slower types headed straight back to Skipton for a second cuppa.  The main road was a little busier than was ideal, but it was wide and mostly flat which made for a much easier roll home.

    Despite the pain and difficulty, it turned out to be a perfect day for a ride - the sun came out as we left Skipton and we were blessed with clear blue sky for the whole day.  The Yorkshire Dales are always beautiful, but bathed in spring sunshine, with the first new lambs in the fields and the verges crowded with snowdrops we quickly ran out of superlatives.  Rich and I caught a particularly special moment - having stopped to catch my breath, he pulled up with me just in time to hear the burbling call of a lapwing in its courtship dance, one of our most threatened birds and an utterly magical thing to hear and see. 

    While I was happy for the faster riders to go on ahead a little, I was even happier that I never has to ride alone - there was always someone to chat to, a wheel to sit on, an encouraging word just when I needed it, for the whole 22 miles.  I was the slowest by far, but never felt that was causing a huge problem for anyone - thanks guys, for your patience, friendship and support, I honestly couldn't have done it without you Rich, Jen, Carol, Dave, John, Dan, Andrew, Lou and Paul (in no particular order, by the way!)


    Me, in one of the few moments my face didn't match my new red jersey! (photo by Dave)
    Waiting - for me, again!  Thanks guys!

    Hail! Hail! The gang's all here! Andrew, Dan, Carol, Paul, Dave, Rich (standing), me, John, Lou & Jen. Another of Dave's pictures.

    One of the odder sights of the day - moles hung on a fence!

    22 hilly miles,  Show on Google Maps