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?