Wednesday, 26 March 2014

#saveabanana day!

Today was Save a Banana day over at the Guardian Live Better project! 

Banana recipes, jokes, videos, slippery banana skins, amazing name it - they've got it. There's even a 'friendly banana' drawing competition for kids.

According to WRAP (via the Guardian), a staggering 1.4m bananas are thrown away each day. For once, I have no food waste guilt on this front. I can barely keep up with the demand for bananas in this house, so we are rarely in a position to be throwing any out.

We're traditional in our uses of bananas (head to the Guardian if you want more exotic ideas). We like them:

  • Chopped on top of cereal (me - for some reason I find it hard to eat a banana whole)
  • In smoothies (the kids)
  • Mashed for pudding (the kids)
  • A lazy packed lunch - squash a whole (peeled) banana between two slices of bread (Husband)
  • One-a-day for a mid-morning snack at school (Daughter)
  • Wrapped in foil on the barbecue with a few chunks of chocolate inside (everyone)

And if we really do have surplus bananas, then banana cake, muffins or banana added to flapjack are the most popular choices.

A not so popular banana activity that we tried a few years ago involved using the peel to treat veruccas. This is not the easiest remedy to administer to the feet of small, active children so our trial didn't last long enough to know whether this actually works or not.

Last but not least, we have all been subjected to many renditions of the 'peel banana' song which Son learnt when he went on a PGL camp with school last year. It's a winner with his younger cousins. If you watch the video, you'll see why, as an adult, the novelty wears off after a while! (Especially as Son's version follows the digestion of a banana through the human body right from the mouth to the other end...)

What are your favourite things to do with bananas?

Sunday, 23 March 2014

More Birthdays, Bikes and Bottles...

Last week it was Husband's birthday. Not a birthday with a zero on the end, so sadly no special River Cottage cookery course or the like for him.

It has been noted before that he is not impartial to a glass of red. 

Strictly frugally speaking we should be making our own or avoiding the expense altogether but after Husband's disastrous cider-making attempts there has been no rush for him to get in touch with his inner vintner. Maybe there's a River Cottage course on such things for his 50th...

As for unnecessary expenditure on alcohol, Husband is fond of reminding me that he spends no money on anything else for himself (except the odd bike tool) and it's true, he is the unsung eco/frugal hero here. Whilst I lounge around writing about frugal stuff, he's out there cycling 12 miles to work, or in his garage building and making. Practically, there's not much that he won't have a go at himself, be it welding, chimney sweeping or garage building. He's also happy to remind me that as he's never ever flown anywhere, his carbon footprint is the size of a gnat's. 

I think we can allow the guy his few glasses of wine at a weekend. And especially on his birthday.

We have no absolutely expertise on the subject of wine buying so we have made up our own idiosyncratic rules over the years. If you are a bottle of wine these are the sort of characteristics you need to possess in order to make it off the shelf and into our shopping basket:

  • You have to be on sale for under a fiver.
  • Usually you must have been produced close to home so that the food miles are less. French is good. Spanish and Italian are OK too.
  • You are exempt from the above rule if you are Fairtrade.
  • You are available from our local supermarket. 
  • You are not called Liebfraumilch.
  • Your alcohol content is not under 8%.

When buying for a special occasion, I apply that all-important extra selection criteria: look at the image on the label. For Husband there has been considerable mileage in labels picturing bicycles over the last few years. (Our good friends over at Spindles and Sprockets even featured a blog post on this a while back!) This birthday there was a dearth of anything velopedic in the wine section at the Co-op, so I went for the next best thing; chickens. 

Our very last wine choosing strategy is that Aldi and Lidl are always fantastic for good quality, cheap wines. For a long time this was based on our own instincts but then last year my Dad (who takes wine buying more seriously than we do) bought a copy of The Best Wine in the Supermarkets 2013 which confirmed what we had already guessed. Aldi's low prices do not reflect low quality. They are quoted as having good relationships with their suppliers and a "highly efficient" business model, so that the majority of a customer's spend is "going into the liquid itself".

I don't know how 2014 is shaping up for Aldi, but this time last year their Toro Loco Tempranillo was one of The Independent's 10 best Seasonal Reds: "Toro Loco excelled in blind tastings alongside reds costing nearly 10 times as much". And of their Montepulciano d'Abruzzo (one of my all time favourites), Ned Halley in The Best Wine book writes, "I cannot understand how they do it at the price".

I had a quick flit around the internet before writing this blog post and also discovered that Aldi's one wine buyer (as opposed to Tesco's 15) Mike James (@drmikerjames) is a keen cyclist and naturalist, with a PhD in the world's smallest butterfly. Cycling, butterflies and wine? We approve!

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Birthdays, Bread and Bannetons

It seemed a good idea. Booking my brother onto a River Cottage bread making course for his 40th birthday, that is.

Back in the autumn he inherited a bread making machine, and I received a flurry of texts about sunken loaves and there were tense moments when the bread wasn't mixing properly.

When it came to dreaming up a unique birthday experience for him, a surprise River Cottage bread making course seemed a no-brainer. And happy days, River Cottage happens to be situated not far from the ancestral home in Devon. He could advance his culinary skills and it would be an excuse for a jolly family get-together. What a brilliant plan!

Several family members agreed and we all clubbed together, and it still seemed the best idea ever, until I actually booked it. Then I had a severe case of post-purchase cognitive dissonance...Would my brother's passing interest in chucking flour into an old Lidl bread maker translate into a really long day of baking by hand at River Cottage HQ? It was an awful long way for him to travel. Or perish the thought, was it one of those things where you end up completely subconsciously choosing a gift for someone that you would quite like for yourself? Not to mention the huge expense! What were we thinking of?

These misgivings were not made any better by the fact that in January, when the course took place, much of the South West was under water and it took my poor brother and his two small children, hours to get to Devon from London. Oh dear.

On the day, however, a cloudless blue sky seemed to bode well. A large number of the participants consisted of people who, like my brother, had been gifted the day and it was rather like leaving your child at nursery for the first time. Partners, children, wives (and this nervous big sister) hovered nervously in the car park as the tractor bore our loved ones down the hill to the venue.

I'm not entirely sure what went on down there, but my brother came back a baker, through and through.

Although Hugh himself was not in evidence, the River Cottage philosophy was intrinsic to the course and the real joy is that, along with all the goodies that he had baked on the day, my brother came back so evangelistic that we have all benefited from his newly acquired knowledge. Aidan Chapman, the master baker who ran the course, is a passionate Dough Anarchist, and for a while we were all subjected to many Aidanisms.
  • Aidan says supermarket bread in a plastic bag is to be avoided at all costs. All those nasty additives. Yuck. It will give you a tummy ache. Instead, source local stoneground flour from a mill near you and bake your own bread. 
  • Aidan says real bread takes time. Don't rush it. Yeast will do its stuff without the aid of an airing cupboard. (My brother now makes his bread in the evening and leaves it to rise overnight.)
  • Aidan says get as much water into the dough as possible.
  • Aidan says there are four magic ingredients. Flour, water, yeast and salt. (No sugar required).
  • Aidan says you must savour the whole sensory experience: the aroma and the feel of the dough.
  • Aidan says any bread maker worth their salt should have a banneton* and a dough scraper (so my brother did what he said and got them).
We were all sure that even if my brother never baked a focaccia again, it would be a day to remember. But back at home he has baked focaccia and all sorts of other breads. I think he enjoyed it...

Freshly baked Philippine Pandesal for breakfast baked by Brother!

The moral of the story? Experiences do make good birthday presents. "Collect moments not things." The River Cottage experience didn't come cheap, but sharing the cost made it affordable. (And River Cottage frequently have discounts on offer - e.g. during March all cookery courses are 50% off the usual price). I think my brother would agree that the location, seasonal refreshments and quality of the venue coupled with the enthusiastic tutoring were worth the money. You might think that getting your hands floury would be the best part of a bread making course, but my brother was wowed by the demonstrations and seeing a true professional in action. Long may he continue practising what he learnt, and long may we continue to eat the products!

Please note, I am not affiliated to River Cottage and they haven't sponsored this blog post in any way.

* I didn't know what a banneton is either until my brother got one. It's a special basket in which you prove the dough, and which gives a lovely shape and pattern to the final loaf.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Give and Take, Give and Bake...

So, what did I take from the Give and Take day last weekend?

I took home the same amount of things that I gave which amounted to a paltry four things. Have I really simplified my life so much that all I could find to give away was four measly items? I wish. The truth of the matter is I have a huge pile of clutter accumulating in my bedroom. Daughter has signed up for a World Challenge Expedition in 2015 where she is expected to fund the trip herself through sponsored events, enterprising schemes, babysitting and the like. Part of her income generating strategy is selling stuff on eBay and at a car boot sale so that's where most of our surplus stuff is destined at the moment.

However a pink ballet bag and some kitchen utensils were liberated from the World Challenge pile and Given.

I told myself that on no account should I bring home more things than I donated and I stuck to my word. My Takens were: 

Exhibit No. 1: 

The biscuit jar. Does what it says on the jar.

Exhibit No. 2

One willow pattern plate to go with all my other mismatched willow pattern plates. 

Exhibit No. 3

The Best-ever Bread Cookbook. This has already proved its worth (groan at the breadmaking pun) and Son was kept busy last Sunday afternoon making his first ever loaf of bread.

Exhibit No. 4

The CD Trouble by Ray LaMontagne.

None of the four items were things that we desperately needed but as each one has been put to use, read or listened to already, I think we can call it a success all round!

Friday, 7 March 2014

Food Waste Friday - a bit of swedey fun...

Hardly any food waste to report here this week, but I'm a little concerned about this Swede who has grown a head of Nordic blonde hair. Kind of.

He's sitting in the kitchen to remind me to to use him up over the weekend.

That's one big swede so the possibilities are endless. I'm thinking maybe freeze some, some in soup or veggie pasties and if I'm feeling really adventurous, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, my current veg guru, has a recipe for a swede speltotto.

In other food waste fun, I took the Guardian Live Better's 'Food Warrior or Food Waster?' Quiz (Click here to take the quiz). Based on my responses, this was the analysis:
 Mostly Cs: Oh, well done you. You’re not perfect, but you always do your darnedest not to waste a single scrap of food. As soon as you finish eating anything, it's placed in a bowl, covered with cling film and shoved in your fridge. You can make a roast dinner last a week. You can make a box of eggs last a month. You’re more conscientious and, therefore, have more spare cash than everyone else. Chances are that being this good at leftovers has also made you unbearably smug, though, and you don't really have many friends any more. Oh well. More five-day-old risotto for you!
Oh dear, a food waste Billy No Mates. At least I've got Sven the Swede to talk to...

All swede ideas gratefully received!

Food Waste Friday was dreamt up by, to encourage people to use up food instead of waste it. This week you can find Food Waste Friday hosted by 

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

A little Give and Take

Last year we took part in Wiltshire Wildlife Trust's Slim Your Bin project, to see if we could reduce our household waste. A spin-off from taking part in the project has been getting involved with the Zero Waste sub-group of our local Transition Town organisation, Transcoco.

One of the group's particular successes has been instigating regular 'Give and Take' days in Corsham and Box. They're a bit like a good old fashioned Jumble Sale, except no money changes hands. You turn up on the day, give stuff you don't want any more, and you take away anything that takes your fancy. Remember the three Rs mantra - Reduce, Reuse and Recycle? The Give and Take days have got all of them covered. Waste is reduced, stuff is reused and all the leftovers at the end of the morning are carefully recycled by the Zero Waste volunteers.

Although I'd been along to previous Give and Take days, last weekend's was the first one where I'd helped out  as a volunteer.

My first instruction on arriving was to get rid of my bag immediately. The cardinal rule of a Give and Take day? For heaven's sake don't leave your handbag (or anything else you don't want to be snapped up by an eager 'Taker') in the hall but hide it out of sight in one of the adjoining rooms!

With tables put out, and signs indicating where people should put their unwanted goodies, an eager queue builds up well before opening time.

And then the hoards descend. If things look a little sparse at the beginning, it doesn't take long for the tables to fill up.

Housey stuff

Books, books and more books...

Bric-a-brac - it was a good morning
if you were looking out for Christmas decorations.

Or a loo seat...

If you are not sure whether it is actually true that one man's trash is another's treasure, then this is the place to dispel all such doubts. One of my favourite moments of the morning was when a never-been-used, not-entirely-to-all-tastes, Christmas themed cruet set appeared on the housewares table. The donor confessed in hushed tones that it was an unwanted gift. Within minutes someone else was gasping with delight at the very sight of Santa salt and his reindeer pepper, and he had been lovingly rehomed.

One of other beauties of the event is that the constant stream of 'givers' over an hour and a half means that each time you stroll around the hall the scene is different; there are new items to see, and this holds the audience, many of whom do several circuits of the tables. Even the most avowed declutterer would find it to resist taking a little something home with them. Especially when you know that if it transpires that you really didn't need it after all you can just bring it to the next Give and Take day...

(And if you're wondering, I broke even and brought as many items home as I took, all of which have been used already!)

Monday, 3 March 2014

Guardian Live Better project kicks off!

The Guardian's Live Better digital project kicked off today. A seven month project focusing on sustainable living in its widest sense, the first challenge the project has taken on is to look at Food Waste. Fantastic! That's a subject close to my heart. If it's close to yours too, the website is definitely worth checking out; the writer Zoe Williams is doing a kind of live bloggy challenge to eat for a week from her store cupboard and veg box, a Dinner Doctor is on hand as the website's version of an agony aunt and will answer all your leftovers dilemmas and there's a food waste quiz and infographic. 

That's only the tip of the iceberg - there's loads more over there and it's all very interactive - lots of commenting and tweeting going on. Ooh and there'll be a Grassroots 'blog of the week section' starting soon too.

Macaroni Peas - it's basically...well...macaroni and peas! Simples!

I didn't have a chance to check out the whole Live Better shebang until after I'd eaten my macaroni peas for supper (which is the kind of standard store cupboard and vegetable fare that my family are subjected to the majority of the time). I'm sure Zoe would be able to knock that up easily some time this week!

(The recipe comes from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage Veg Every Day cookbook which I have just borrowed from the library and can be found via this link).