Saturday, 26 July 2014

Unusual Food Waste on Food Waste Friday

It's been a looong looong time since I did a Food Waste Friday blog post. But as a blog ambassador for Zero Waste Week 2014 (check out the website here), all things wastey must go to the top of my agenda again, and that includes food waste. 

Most of the time now, we have our food waste well under control. But we're not perfect and every now and again something trips us up.

This week it's olive oil.


Now I never imagined that would be a food stuff you'd see me throwing away. I thought olive oil lasted for years. 

It probably does but here's the thing. When it's stored in a nearly transparent recycled bottle in the kitchen, it starts tasting funny. All this summer, I've been wondering why my salads had a decidedly pungent flavour. Yesterday when I poured some oil on my pasta, and the pasta also had the same distinctive taste, I finally realised that the dressing was the problem, not this year's lettuce crop. From there I narrowed it down to the olive oil.

As luck would have it my first summer holiday read happens to be a book entitled Talking to Zeus, My Year in a Greek garden by Jane Shaw. You don't spend a year in a Greek garden without harvesting some olives at some point, and on Thursday night the book answered all my olive oil puzzles. 

Jane Shaw's Greek garden mentor, Joy, asks her, "Oil should be kept in tinted glass bottles kept in a cool, dark cupboard. Now why is that?"

And Jane answers, "To stop light oxidising the oil. It would go rancid otherwise."

There we have it, rancid olive oil. 

I'm not going to stop using my recycled glass oil and vinegar bottles because I'm too fond of them but I will be keeping them safely in the cupboard from now on, with only a small amount of oil in, so that it doesn't get to hang around for too long.


I had a happy fifteen minutes wandering around the Filippo Berio website falling in love with extra virgin olive oil and the Mediterranean diet all over again. Olive oil really is wonderful stuff, full of wonderful things like monounsurated fats and polyunsaturated fats and antioxidants, and if, like me, you're an olive oil fan, the website is worth a look at. However I couldn't find anything there about rancidity. For that I had to go to this Dr Mercola article, which has lots of information about shelf life etc. It seems that my favourite olive oil, the extra virgin, is more prone to going rancid due to higher levels of chlorophyll.

My oil and vinegar bottles were bought in Traidcraft's summer sale a couple of years ago. This year their sale ends tomorrow, 28 July, so get over there quickly if you like a fairtrade bargain!

(Lastly, nothing to do with useful olive oil facts but possibly the funniest fictional audio book I have ever listened to from the library features olive oil, and is of course, Alexander McAll Smith's Unusual Uses for Olive Oil . He's the most prolific writer and I've read and loved a lot of books from his various series but this was one instance where I felt that the audio book version was so well read (by Julian Rhind Tutt) that it was perhaps even funnier than the print version.)

Over to you: Any favourite culinary oils? Ever had rancid oil issues? Favourite summer reads? Favourite audio books?

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Buzzing with excitement

In between Son walking back to school one evening last week to act as an eagle in his Year 6 performance of 'The Circle of Life', and Daughter heading off to rehearse 'Songs from the Shows' we were treated to an unscheduled performance on the allotment. So much excitement on one evening.

In the manner of the very first Winnie-the-Pooh story, there was a buzzing noise and "if there's a buzzing noise, someone's making the buzzing noise...". Yes, a swarm of bees had arrived.

Whilst they were swarming in the air we observed them from afar with binoculars. What wimps we are. Once they had settled Husband crept around the allotment gingerly to find out what they were up to.

Fortunately Corsham has a thriving bee keeping scene and after a chain of phone calls, we found a local bee keeper who was happy to come and see what could be done.

Feeling much braver with an expert on hand we chatted away near the bees before he donned his gear. He assured us that bees that have swarmed like this are usually happy, well fed bees. They are what is termed an 'after swarm', a breakaway contingent from another swarm, who are looking to set up a new home with a new queen.

Can you see any waggling?

Whilst they were hanging out temporarily at our allotment we could see the scout bees disappearing off for up to two or three miles to check out the credentials of new homes for the swarm. On their return these scouts bees were communicating the details of the places they had found (how far off the ground the new home was, which way it faced etc) to the rest of the bees in the hedge, via their waggle dance which was fascinating to witness. If we hadn't intervened they would eventually have come to a communal decision as to where to go, and all at once they would have buzzed off.

In this type of situation, it's an unwritten law of bee keeping to try and deal with a swarm to prevent the bees from setting up home somewhere unwanted like an attic or chimney.

Once he'd trimmed a few branches from the hedge to faciliate an easy transfer, our friendly bee keeper shook the bees into a basket called a skep.

The skep was then turned over and lodged ajar with a piece of wood and we waited anxiously to see whether the queen was in there (in which case the bees would stay inside and the bees that were still flying around would gradually make their way in). "You never can tell with bees" after all.

By sunset most of the bees had congregated in the skep and Richard was able to wrap the whole thing in a sheet and drive them to a temporary hive he had set up.

We haven't heard from the bees since then but we hope they are settling into their new home and that we can take up the bee keeper's invitation to go and visit them over the summer!

Ironically on the very same day that our honey bees arrived, I had read about Friends of the Earth's Great British Bee Count; our small swarm was estimated to comprise of 20,000 bees. Should I add that to the Bee Count?!

Other bee facts:

  • The situation for bees is generally not good at the moment - according to FoE 97% of wild meadows have gone in the UK in the last 60 years, so bees are going hungry and homeless. Not only is this bad news for the bees but as polllinators of our fruit and veg it's bad news for humans. It really is a circle of life.
  • 20 species of bee have become extinct.
  • We can help bees by planting wildflowers in our gardens and building bug hotels (see the Friends of the Earth website above for links on how to do this). One of our allotment neighbours who came to join in the fun last Thursday says that he plants borage especially for the bees as they love it.
  • Richard the Bee Keeper told us that his honey has relieved the symptoms of local hay fever sufferers. I've put my name down for a jar next year! Propolis (which is made by the bees and used to seal small gaps in the hive) is also a great pain reliever.
  • In the few hours that our bees were in the skep they would already have started making honey comb. It's too late in the season for this swarm to produce any honey but hopefully they will make some next year.
  • Honey can have the flavour of the plants that the bees have been visiting. This year in Wiltshire, chestnut and lime trees have flowered well and been a good source of nectar for local bees.
  • Gale's honey originated in Wiltshire and our bees were collected in an old skep that came from their beehives and workshops towards Marlborough. The picture below, however, shows Richard with a skep that he made himself.
  • Sadly, as well as habitat loss, disease kills many bees. 
  • In times gone past, bee keepers would kill their bees at the end of the season so that they didn't have to keep them alive over the winter, safe in the knowledge that they would be able to gather a new feral colony for their hive in the spring. Nowadays the feral colonies just aren't out there.
  • A hive of bees is affected by the queen - an angry queen means an angry hive of bees whereas a gentle queen means a gentle hive.
  • Corsham is doing its bit for bees - there are at least 12 hives belonging to bee keepers in the centre of Corsham and Transcoco has a sub group, Corsham Community Bees, which looks after some community hives. This year we even have an unoccupied decorative bee hive in the town centre as part of the Corsham in Bloom display.

Although we were already very aware of the plight of bees in the UK and learnt all about them when we visited the New Quay Honey Farm in West Wales a few years ago, it was a real education and privilege to see and hear about bees first hand and so close to home.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

The 7 day walking challenge...

Last month the Guardian's Live Better project's focus was Health and Wellbeing. The challenge was to walk for 30 minutes every day for a week.

The health benefits of regular walking are many: lower risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, some cancers and diabetes. Aside from the physical benefits to the body, walking is good for the mind. It's mood boosting and keeps the brain's circuits connecting healthily.

I've often blogged about family walks (remember last year's river walks?) and I have a friend with whom I try and walk once a week. (We say that we're 'power walking' to elevate the activity's status!) Its always therapy for us; we've walked our way through everything from bereavement and marital breakdown to issues with our children and career dilemmas.

Walking's wonderful and you need no special gear to do it, just a pair of legs and comfy shoes. 

Yes, I'm a keen walker, and we're fortunate that despite living very near the centre of town we can also be walking in green fields within 5 minutes of home. There should be absolutely no excuse for not being able to fit in a 30 minute walk every day for seven days, right? Easy peasy, I thought.

Shady path not far from home

Surprisingly, it was a genuine challenge! Over the course of a week, I heard myself deliver all sorts of excuses.

Here's how it panned out:

Day 1 Thursday 19 June: 
Excuses: "I've got too much to do!" and "It's too hot!" 
Solution: I had an errand to run that if I walked it, involved a long shady track, and if I took the long way home, would meet the 30 minute target.
Result: Errand ticked off, and a walk! Win!

Day 2 Friday 20 June:
Excuses: "I've got too much to do! I won't fit in a walk"
Solution: It happened to be Olympic fun run day at work, so I walked around the route with a lad I work with. 
Result: Getting paid to walk! Win!

Day 3 Saturday 21 June:
Excuses: "I'm too tired and it's too hot!"
Result: Although I walked up to town and back twice at different times and was on my feet for most of the day, I didn't fit in 30 minutes of continuous walking so I reckon this was a Fail!

Day 4 Sunday 22 June:
Excuse: "It's too hot!
Solution: Daughter and I were in Bradford-on-Avon for most of the day for musical reasons. When Daughter wasn't rehearsing or performing we relaxed in the shade but we also slapped on our sun hats and slopped on the suncream and walked by the canal, which was partly in shade anyway. (On this occasion the health benefits of the walking may have been outweighed by the large blackberry icecreams we ate at the end of the walk...)
Result: Not outdone by the weather! Yummy icecreams! Win!

Day 5 Monday 23 June:
Excuse: "It's too late and I'm too tired!"
Solution: In our town, with my phone on me, and when the evenings are so light, I feel safe taking a walk at 9.45pm. The other advantage of a late walk is that the temperature has dropped and it's pleasantly cool.
Result: A cool walk! Win!

Day 6 Tuesday 24 June:
Excuse: "Too hot!" (Are you starting to see a pattern emerging here...?)
Every other Tuesday involves an hour where I'm waiting for a child whilst they play in string group. Sometimes I read, sometimes I chat to another mum, and sometimes I do two laps of the very large school field which amounts to half an hour's walking.
Result: I told myself it was way too hot so I wouldn't walk, however by the time we got to the school there was a pleasant breeze. I could have walked but I hadn't got any sun protection with me, so I didn't. Fail!

Day 7 Wednesday 25 June:
Another evening walk.

What did I learn?

  • For me, the best option to make sure I get enough walking into my week is to try and incorporate it into other aspects of daily life: running errands and whilst waiting for children.
  • The perfect weather for a walk in the UK is a rare thing. It may be unusually hot at the moment (and perhaps I was silly to choose midsummer week for my challenge) but if it's not hot then it'll more likely be rainy or too cold. Fortunately a half hour walk doesn't require expensive Gore-tex but making sure I have the right sun protection or wet weather gear with me at the right time will increase the likelihood of completing a walk.
  • Although I felt tired beforehand, an evening walk gives a beneficial energy boost. There were no early morning walks for me this particular week but they similarly are a great way to start the day.
This month the Guardian Live Better project's focus is on saving water and the challenge is to restrict your showers to four minutes. Now this one should really be easy peasy shouldn't it?

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Catchy uppy blog post

Everyday Life on a Shoestring has been busy...

getting inspired...
  • by the free business advice that the Wessex Chambers of Commerce offers to the people of Wiltshire. We attended a free Become Your Own Boss seminar which was really useful for people without an entrepreneurial bone in their body (like us) and for the more entrepreneurial. In Wiltshire it seems much support is available, including a grant of up to £1500 for specialist advice on, say, building a website or marketing your business. We've got a couple of ideas for the future and the seminar really helped clarify the next steps.
  • by Peter White MBE (the BBC's Disability Affairs Correspondent) who was giving a talk as part of the local Arts Centre's Senseability week (which focused on the issue of disability and inclusion within the Arts). Blind from birth, Peter's positive, can-do approach and insights into his life and disability issues, made for a really interesting and inspiring evening. This event was free, and I found myself feeling paranoid that the Arts Centre staff will think I'm Corsham's ultimate cheapskate who rocks up for anything free. (True, of course, but I DO buy tickets for other stuff too!)
  • by the Bristol Big Green Week . Lots going on, including Bristol's biggest bike ride and lots of cycling stuff this Sunday.
  • our plants struggle! One cat likes to sleep in a plant pot with a (now very squashed) fuschia. The sunny wall against which my tomato plants are growing is also the wall that Son likes to kick a football onto. Football + tomato plants = more squashed plants. My bargain Magnolia tree/stick purchased last month, was sporting four healthy leaves. Turns out slugs like Magnolia leaves. I do hope it recovers.


  • frozen grapes. They were being suggested as a 'palate cleanser in between courses' or 'like a grape sorbet' at a local food festival. The sort of simple meals served up in our house don't generally call for 'palate cleansers' but in the recent hot weather we've decided we really, really like frozen grapes for an any-time snack or a pudding (using reduced price grapes obviously). Try it - they're scrummy.


  • Daughter's signed up for a World Challenge expedition to Iceland in 2015 and needs to raise the jaw-dropping £1600 costs herself. After a slow start, this money finding challenge is gathering momentum, with two supermarket bag packs recently, selling a load of her old toys, clothes and our clutter on eBay, getting paid for watering our neighbours' garden while they're on holiday, and a sudden flurry of local events involving mountains of cake baking and selling. Amazingly she's on target to meet her '£500 by the beginning of July' target.

If I'm missing from the blog over the next few weeks, you'll probably find me in the kitchen making cakes or supervising a cake stall...

Friday, 6 June 2014

My first (and favourite) simple living guru.

Recently Daughter read The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak which is set in Nazi Germany and narrated by 'Death'. The story of little Liesl and her foster family on Himmel Street, is both gripping and harrowing. 

After she'd finished reading it, unsurprisingly, Daughter felt her next book needed to be something light. We had a couple of visits to the library trying to find something that would fit the bill. If you're in the habit of browsing the teen readers section of your library, you'll know it's full of vampires, teenage love, and teenage angst. Well, ours is anyway. 'Grim stuff', pronounced the teen.

We gave up and went home.

Eventually I found Daughter had gone back to an old familiar.


Originally written in 1928 by Joyce Lankester Brisley, the Milly-Molly-Mandy stories have been popular ever since.

I adored them and re-read them many times in my childhood. Comfort reading at its best.

And so much simple living inspiration. 

Although Milly-Molly-Mandy lives with "a Father, and a Mother, and a Grandpa, and a Grandma, and an Uncle, and an Aunty" who, for the most part, fulfill the gender expectations of the era, Milly-Molly-Mandy herself will turn her hand to anything, be it knitting, baking, gardening, fishing or helping out with thatching.

The family are thrifty, self reliant and environmentally aware. When Milly-Molly-Mandy gets invited to a party, Mother and Aunty upcycle a party dress out of a silk scarf and a lace handkerchief.

Milly-Molly-Mandy is not just a pretty face in her stripy dress - she's entrepreneurial. My favourite Milly-Molly-Mandy story is 'Milly Molly Mandy spends a penny' where she finds a penny in an old coat and gathers suggestions about what to do with it from all the family. By growing and selling some mustard and cress and careful saving, she manages to achieve everything the family suggests from growing seeds, baking, learning to knit, buying sweets through to finally saving three pennies to buy a duckling.

She enjoys simple pleasures such as going blackberrying, having her friend (little-friend-Susan) to stay, going fishing with Billy Blunt and splashing in the sea.

An early exponent of the positive psychology movement, Milly Molly Mandy turns a failed blackberrying expedition (all the blackberries are in a Trespassers Will be Prosecuted area) on its head by having just as much fun watching and stroking a baby bunny instead. When her friend Billy Blunt is somewhat begrudgingly weeding the family garden, Milly Molly Mandy joins him and it becomes an exercise in mindfulness, "Doesn't the earth smell nice when you turn it up?" Before you know it, Billy and Milly have not only weeded the garden but tidied the lawn, and painted the water butt and garden-roller.

Interwoven throughout the book are the gentle and warm relationships Milly-Molly-Many has with her family, peers and local community (such as Mr Rudge, the Blacksmith, Miss Muggins in the shop and Teacher, who is referred to throughout as just Teacher).

Best of all, the books have a wonderful map inside the front and back covers so that you can track the whereabouts of all the events in the book, see where everyone lives, and spot the difference between Milly-Molly-Mandy's summer and winter routes to school.

For me, Milly-Molly-Mandy, despite never putting a foot wrong, somehow manages not to be too twee. I think the ordinariness and hands-on-ness of all the everyday activities she participates in keep her grounded. All in all, a good choice for an uplifting read after The Book Thief and a charming must-read for anyone interested in frugal and simple living!

How about you: Who's your simple living guru or what's your inspirational book? Any suggestions for light reads for teenage girls?

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

We ♥ Birdwatching!

We're fond of our garden birds (remember Chirpy?) and always enjoy time outdoors, whether it's gardening, walking or cycling, but really, we wouldn't call ourselves serious birdwatchers.

However when it's one of the best times of year for birdwatching and you're staying next to a nature reserve you can't help but ♥ birdwatching and become serious birdwatchers for a few days. You don't need to wear special clothes or have expensive telescopic equipment or to 'twitch'; birdwatching can be fun for everyone.


That was what we found last week when we visited our Devon relatives in Seaton. Seaton's not just about its shingle beach and sharply shelving seashore (try saying that after a few Devon ciders). Or its tramline running alongside the river. It's all about the Axe Estuary Wetlands at this time of year.

View from the wetlands towards the coast

Not far from the beach and easily visible from the tram, the Wetlands consists of three nature reserves managed by East Devon District Council on the lower river Axe. The three reserves almost link up by footpath to make one huge nature area, and that is the long term goal. 

There is a lot to see and do there: saltmarsh, freshwater grazing marsh, ponds, a purpose-built Sand Marten habitat, birdhides, a classroom and information centre (currently with a live webcam streaming the latest news from a Kestrel and a Bluetits' nest - BBC Springwatch eat your heart out!). All this is accessible via a network of footpaths including some that are buggy, wheelchair and bicycle friendly. And it's all free.

We walked through the reserve a few times during our stay, but the highlight has to be the sunny evening we spent in one of the birdhides, anticipating the arrival of the local Barn Owl on its nightly hunting excursion. Whilst we were waiting, we enjoyed the antics of all sorts of water birds. At this time of year, many are sitting on nests (can you spot the Coot's nest in the photo above?) or looking after young. The goslings and ducklings were super cute.

Canada Goose and young

Just when we were about to give up hope of seeing the Barn Owl, it swooped over the shallow scrape in exactly the place we weren't looking for it (thank heavens for a knowledgeable, eagle-eyed local). Even with the Barn Owl, though, it would still have been a magical evening. 

Blurry barn owl shot
Yes, Barn Owl or no Barn Owl, we all ♥ birdwatching. Eco, frugal and simple.

Birdwatchers notes:

Check out a proper birdwatching blog by an Axe Valley birder - click here

Axe Estuary Wetlands information - click here

Seaton Tramway - click here

Information about Seaton (the poor relation of Lyme Regis, Sidmouth, Beer and all those posher places - but we think Seaton's much more down-to-earth and well worth a visit) - click here

Our favourite binoculars (Daughter was given a pair by Granmy and Grandad and we all fight to use them). They're really lightweight and portable, and we'd say they're not just for children - click here

Watch Springwatch on TV, by all means, but don't forget to take advantage of the light evenings and get out there and do some real 'watching'!

Many thanks to Daughter for all the photography in this blog post, except for the Barn Owl photo which was taken by Son.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Plants on the cheap!

We haven't got room for a greenhouse in our garden and it's against allotment regulations to build one there, so all our vegetables have to be started off outside or squeezed onto window sills. Not using slug pellets, everything we grow ends up being shared very generously with our terrestrial mollusc friends. Ours is never the most abundant of allotments.  No surprise then that we're always eager to supplement our seedlings with whatever we can glean from elsewhere.

Our efforts have been extra keen this year, not only for the allotment but for the garden also. There has been a fence replacement and we've waved goodbye to the old Wendy house which moved over the road, section by section, to a new 2 year old owner occupier who can actually fit inside it (as opposed to my kids who have spent the last couple of summers jumping around on its roof). The new fence and the gap left by the Wendy house have involved drastically cutting back a climbing rose and many other flower bed tragedies, so we've been on the look out for plant replacements. On a low budget, of course. 

Growing your own from seed is always cheapest but if, like us, you need extra supplies, here's our 2014 guide to sourcing plants on a shoestring:

1.   Let it be known to all your green fingered friends (especially those with greenhouses) that you'll take any surplus off their hands. We swap plants for eggs with one especially green fingered buddy. And hint (subtly, obviously!) that you like receiving plants for birthday presents! (I got a Rosemary plant, some Lobelia and two tomato plants for mine in April).

2.   Look out for handwritten signs advertising plants outside people's houses. Travelling around by bike or on foot means you're more likely to spot them. The table below was tucked in the front of the garden of somebody rearranging their garden and selling the resulting plants in aid of a Kenyan charity. The advantage of cycling slowly behind the rest of the family meant that I spotted this table of leafy delights whilst they pedalled furiously ahead.

3.   Keep your eyes peeled for plant sales. My favourite is organised by our local gardening society; lots of variety from shrubs to salads, reasonably priced plants and staffed by really knowledgeable gardeners. Coming from gardens with the same Corsham conditions as mine, I know that the plants will do well in my own and, best of all, have been grown with enthusiasm and love. This year I unintentionally came away armed with almost more plants than I could carry as I arrived in the last 20 minutes of the sale when they were selling everything at half price. 

4.   Summer fetes and other local events will also often have plant stalls. We've got several coming up in our town in the next few weeks, including Nick Mason (the drummer from Pink Floyd) and his wife Annette's Open Garden in aid of the Wiltshire Bobby Van Trust, which, as well as miniature donkeys, Kune Kune piglets, a celebrity cake auction, stalls and demonstrations, promises...plants. (Curiously though, no music). Will the plant prices match those of the Corsham Gardening Society, or will there be a celebrity premium, I wonder!

5.   Check out your local greengrocer. Ours sells locally grown veg plants at this time of year.

6.   Many supermarkets sell bedding plants cheaply at this time of year. They are not always looked after with the care and attention of the Gardening Society so if you are going to buy any, make sure they are thriving. On our recent Morrison's visit we were impressed at the wide range of plants on offer outside, many of which were not too expensive. In-store we especially liked the wildflower plants on special offer at £1 each.

7. Cheapy shops. Some of the bargain stores like Poundland and B&M stock plants. For as long as I can remember for precisely a week each year in the spring when they look at their most beautiful, I have hankered after having a Magnolia tree in my garden. I finally gave in to the desire a month ago (undeterred by last year's tree buying experience - see point 10 below), when the B&M store near work was selling sticks labelled Magnolia for £1.49! And guess what, my stick has already grown two leaves. Give it another 15 years and I may have a Magnolia blooming in the garden.

7.   Car boot sales. We got some strawberry plants at the one boot sale we've been to this year.

8.   Give and Take events. Last year, I 'took' a leggy Hawthorn plant, which is now filling out satisfactorily in one of our garden boundaries.

9.   Freebies from your own garden. We sometimes seem to do better with plants that sow themselves than the ones we've sown ourselves. We've got a Cordyline type thing that multiplies prolifically, Love-in-a-Mist self-sows eagerly, and the Wendy house removal revealed two Damson saplings that have been repotted for transplanting elsewhere in one of our boundaries. I take a go-with-the-flow appoach to gardening!

10.   Online. I can only report mixed success with online cheap plant purchasing but I'm prepared to be won over if anyone has had better luck. Last year, as part of the new fence = empty flower bed situation, we bought 'four for £20' fruit trees online which Husband planned to espalier along the fence. Only two have survived, despite lots of nurturing, encouragement and comments such as "I expect they're just dormant", from Husband. The dead pear tree sprouted a watershoot this spring (according to my botanist Uncle), from the plant that the dead pear would have been grafted onto. This is unlikely to bear fruit (says botanist Uncle) but in the interests of point 7. above, and recouping some of the cost, we're letting it grow. I'd think twice before I fell for any online 'bargains' again.

So there we have it, plenty of frugal plant buying opportunities, without even having to get in a car, or fight through the crowds at a garden centre.

How do you manage without a greenhouse/find bargain plants/deter slugs (delete as applicable)? And have I missed any other bargain plant hunting tricks?!